Saturday, May 9, 2015

Living the dream: A favorite guest conductor brings the ISO deep into Berlioz's fantasy

As Friday's Words on Music pre-concert discussion made clear, there's a lot about the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique to understand in terms of music history and the development of the symphony orchestra.

And the work is so explicit about its meaning, thanks in part to the composer's extensive notes, that audiences know what's going on over its 55-minute length and have connected with its thrills for 185 years.
Jun Märkl gets under the skin of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The interpretation that Jun Märkl fashioned with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, as heard Friday in Hilbert Circle Theatre, went beyond that. This was not a performance content with communicating an understanding of the work or underlining its thrills; it wanted you to experience the composer's vision as well, and really get into the composer's venting of his romantic obsession.

Märkl has a history of  eliciting performances from the ISO as committed and inspired as any guest conductor. This Symphonie Fantastique was a high point in that history. The performance took chances, and the musicians were consistently responsive. Conducting without score, Märkl seemed determined to show that the demons are omnipresent across the five movements.

There were a few stunning departures from,  or underlinings of, the unprecedented amount of detail in the score, all of them in service to this "demon-stration." The timpani rolls at the end of the "Scene in the Country," mostly soft in most performances, here took the brief sforzando blazes seriously: This thunder was not distant, and in swelling so ominously, sounded clearly as part of the composer-hero's emotional baggage.

And, in the steady, scripted pace of the "March to the Scaffold," Märkl broadened startlingly several measures featuring menacing brass descents. Where did that come from? I'm guessing the conductor wanted to represent the protagonist's stunned realization that he is about to be executed.

The autobiographical rawness of Berlioz's concept in the groundbreaking symphony was never shortchanged in this performance, from the gingerly separation of violin phrases in the introduction right through to the clamor of doom in the finale. The acceleration in the final measures of "A Ball" was a credible representation of the hero's dizzying emotional state. Every section and soloist of the orchestra sounded committed to a true rendering of this message: The man imagines himself at the end of his rope and is ready to close the circle of his despairing obsession in a murderous drug haze.

A genius could sublimate such obsession (which, as every program note on the work tells us, had disappointing real-life consequences) through marvelous music. Today's control freaks (almost exclusively men) too often carry out their "You're mine, and only mine!" insistence in the worst possible way. As long as people go crazy in love, Symphonie Fantastique's unique perspective will thrill audiences — particularly when conductors and orchestras are willing to get inside its skin as well as Märkl and the ISO did Friday night.

Violinist brought a robust elan to Mendelssohn
The concert's first half brought to the front of the stage another guest artist of German-Japanese heritage — Arabella Steinbacher.  She played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, one of the most beloved works by a composer whose temperament was nearly opposite to Berlioz's.

From her first entrance, Steinbacher sported a big tone. The main theme was put on unusually solid footing, and we were treated to a less flighty interpretation than the norm. The flexibility and plasticity of the cadenza were extraordinary.

She lavished sufficient sweetness upon the second movement, but the overall characteristic of her interpretation could be pegged (in non-P.C. terms) as virile. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to hear the brief rising figures at the start of the finale treated with a cutesy near-inaudibility. True, they are marked piano, but in this performance they were barely there. Apart from a few flicked-off high notes, that was the only flaw in Steinbacher's hearty performance, and the orchestra's accompaniment was well-synchronized and sounded as sturdy as the soloist. The sturdiness from the first trumpet was overbearing, however;  he must have been looking forward to the blare of Berlioz.

Back to Words on Music: It's refreshing to have this preconcert feature turned over to ISO musicians now and then. That's especially true when it can be handled as smoothly as it was Friday night.

Blake Schlabach plays some David, as Roger Roe and Jack Brennan listen.
With trombonist/personnel manager Blake Schlabach as host, discussion with English hornist/assistant principal oboist Roger Roe and principal timpanist Jack Brennan covered the significance of Symphonie Fantastique in symphonic history as well as the work's landmark status for percussion and winds. The conversation was pitched just right for general understanding, though naturally it got into the kind of insider stuff that Words on Music audiences, who come an hour early, have every right to expect.

There was also some chat touching on Mendelssohn as opposed to Berlioz in their treatment of the orchestra. That gave Schlabach a chance to play an excerpt from a trombone concerto, better known in Europe than here, by Ferdinand David, a prolific composer-violinist. Trombones don't play a large role in Mendelssohn's music, so it's not surprising Mendelssohn declined a suggestion by David to write a concerto for the brass instrument. David's more conspicuous contribution to the musical mainstream was to introduce the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to the world, which has loved it ever since.