Saturday, April 11, 2015

With rising star Alice Sara Ott, Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO mostly hit the mark with an all-Beethoven program

Despite his aptitude for works that make a splash (like the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony earlier this season), Krzysztof Urbanski's keen musical intelligence won't allow him to think routinely about the meat-and-potatoes repertoire.

So it was Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's music director led an all-Beethoven program, with a touch of young-star quality added in the local debut of pianist Alice Sara Ott.

Alice Sara Ott played the majestic Third Concerto
The German-Japanese pianist, playing barefoot, was the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Her interpretive manner was primarily seductive and lyrical. It was also robust when called for (particularly in the cadenza Beethoven provided) and dreamy in the cloudy spiritual depths of the Largo.

Though her rhythmic sense was incisive, there was an odd lack of synchronicity sometimes with the accompaniment, though Urbanski gave every indication of being attentive to the soloist. In temperament and style, Ott and Urbanski seemed to have the necessary rapport. but the result in concerted passages simply wasn't always evident to the ear. The exciting Presto coda to the finale wrapped everything up grandly, however.

Rapturously received by the large audience, Ott answered the ovation with an encore, Schumann's Romance No. 2 in F-sharp minor, bringing to the fore her introspective flair once again.

Programming a guest artist after intermission has its risks, though I found the program order quite logical. The departure of a significant minority of the audience after Ott's appearance still left many ticketholders to enjoy the Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72a. Dramatically over the top, this most-performed of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his sole opera, "Fidelio," confirmed Urbanski's gift for getting his musical insights realized in sound.

The unusually flexible range of dynamics — contrasts extraordinary even for Beethoven — came through. So did a steady sense of all the terraces of expression and forward motion the work embraces.  The strings were firmly centered in living up to the overture's scenario, and led the charge into the full-orchestra crescendo that climaxes the overture. A summit as effective as this one could only have been achieved by modulating the earlier peaks, which the ISO did superbly. An added note of drama, reinforcing the announcement in the opera of a tyrant's downfall, was the positioning in different places of offstage trumpeters for the two "rescue" fanfares.

The concert's first half consisted of Symphony No, 8 in F major, op. 93. Patronized for many years for its position between the immensity of the seventh and ninth symphonies, the eighth is not lesser Beethoven by any means. Perhaps its touches of drollery work against it, as well as a refusal to be portentous: The work begins with a clear statement of the first theme, without the fuss of setting the stage.

Urbanski had no trouble giving all elements of this enchanting symphony their due. The humor of the second movement, a lighthearted tribute to the inventor of the metronome,  was not scanted in Friday's performance. "Beethoven without his humor is as inconceivable as a humorless Shakespeare," wisely wrote the English musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey. Well, some people (not I!) cringe at Shakespeare's humor, too. Tastes in jokes are as individual as tastes in food.

The third movement is Haydnesque, with a difference. There are signs of both tribute and iconoclasm in the way Beethoven handles the symphonic minuet tradition, and both polarities were honored in Friday's performance. In the finale, question-and-answer phrasing was scrupulously observed, and episodes near the end of stop-start momentum and adventures among key centers were exuberantly carried out.

The program will be repeated at 5:30 p.m. today. Worth noting in ISO news is that despite her having joined the chorus against Indiana's original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Audra McDonald has kept her commitment to appear with the orchestra on April 25. Also, in other Broadway guest-artist news, F. Murray Abraham has been forced to withdraw from his narrator's role in Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," leading to its replacement by Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and Variations on a Rococo Theme May 15 and 16. At those concerts, conductor Cristian Machelaru and cellist Johannes Moser will be making their local debuts.