Sunday, June 7, 2015

Middle Earth in Mahlerland: ISO comes home for the second of three performances of the fifth symphony

Setting out on the final phase of symphonic creation in his short life, Gustav Mahler returned to a purely instrumental concept for his Symphony in C-sharp minor, which occupies the middle position in his astonishingly personal and trailblazing series of nine completed symphonies.

He was motivated in part by a thorough reaquaintance with the music of J.S. Bach, whose unsurpassed skills at making independent "voices" work together (polyphony, or counterpoint) had likewise influenced Mozart's late phase just over a century before.

The fifth symphony is the sole work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program; The performance I heard Saturday was the first of two repeats of a Krzysztof Urbanski interpretation first presented Friday night at the Palladium in Carmel. The ISO will play it again Sunday afternoon at Center Grove High School in Greenwood as the finale of its 2014-15 "317 Series."

I might be tempted to trek down there on the strength of Tom Hooten's stellar work guesting in the
Tom Hooten
first-trumpet chair (one of several positions the ISO needs to fill). On his way up in the profession, Hooten was briefly assistant principal trumpet here; now he is principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Hooten's sound is big, really big — but also warm and even sweet. This variegated quality seemed perfect for a leading solo voice in a symphony as chock-full of emotional turmoil as the Mahler Fifth. The final vista is of almost giddy joy, however, and that's an appropriate description of how this most accomplished guest is being received by colleagues and concertgoers alike this weekend.

Such a firm stamp was put on the trumpet solos by Hooten, starting with the bone-chilling fanfare that launches the first movement, that it may have inspired ISO principal horn Robert Danforth to be as bold and self-assured as ever I've heard him.  The composer highlights the instrument so conspicuously that the lead part tops the section on its own staff as "horn obbligato," and in that capacity Danforth's playing was noble, even heaven-storming, on Saturday.


Krzysztof Urbanski: In Mahler, the conductor is god.
So far I've focused on a couple of soloists, and there will be more to say about the ISO's achievement in meeting the score's demands.  But let's face it: If conductors get the lion's share of symphonic glory today, Gustav Mahler is the maestro that roared in the modern era.

A painstaking, somewhat fierce conductor himself, the Austrian composer's day job was on the podium, where he was both acclaimed and resented.  It's small wonder that his symphonic scores represent the apotheosis of the conductor, and the Fifth is a sterling example. The abundance of words scattered throughout offer instruction to the players, of course, but many of them are totally dependent on the conductor's technical control and attention to detail. Mahler often urges "pressing forward," "holding back," playing "heavy" yet well-articulated — plenty of this or that, but not too much.

If a conductor tries to follow Mahler's direction in a generalized way, he misses the point. Dynamics are so particular to instruments in even their tiniest phrases that Mahler's insistence to Sibelius that a symphony should represent the world does not seem far-fetched. He wanted as much out of his muisc in performance as he could get into his scores, but had too much practical musical experience to be unrestrained. At times, his orchestral music slightly resembles that of the pioneering American modernist Charles Ives, though it's much less haphazard in inspiration and organization and clearer and more brilliant in orchestration.

Urbanski seemed scrupulous about all this in every respect, and got good results from the orchestra.  True, after a pause of several minutes before the third movement (Mahler's directive), the orchestra's return to action took a while to settle. The Scherzo righted itself before long, however, and the Ländler (a country waltz relative) feeling the ISO came up with was charming. Transient partnerships among solo instruments were tastefully handled.

Strings and harp were exquisitely balanced in the sublime Adagietto movement: Urbanski elicited slight tempo shifts to keep the music interesting and still poised. Phrases moved in convex and concave patterns with unerring logic. Abrupt changes in sound and texture, like the wild episodes that disturb the solemn march music of the first movement, were given their true weight as well as the necessary ingredient of surprise.

The Rondo-finale, a vast landscape of exuberant feeling, displayed some wooliness in rushing string passages. But it also featured precise overlapping of string and wind lines, fantastic contrapuntal brio as the Bach influence expresses itself in Mahler's idiom, and moments that could almost be taken for an Austrian hoedown. The gradual gathering of brass forces into a chorale before the delirious rush to the final double bar could hardly have been more exciting.

This performance was a landmark in Urbanski's progress with the orchestra, which badly needs settled personnel (sign of progress: sitting first-chair cello was Austin Huntington in a trial week) to move to the summit of its potential under the Polish maestro's direction.