Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Beloved senior maestro helps UIndy celebrate 20 years of the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center

A local landmark of the start of each musical season is the Gala Opening Concert at the University of Indianapolis, conducted by Raymond Leppard, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate and a city resident since his days as its music director, starting in 1987.

His international reputation was well-established by the time he came here, through his long association with the English Chamber Orchestra, his many recordings, and his sometimes controversial adaptations of early Baroque operas.

Now, with nearly a third of his long life associated with Indianapolis, Leppard's rare podium appearances carry a perceptible aura. Ordinary music-making becomes transfigured; "on the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street / Become the figures of heaven," as the poet Wallace Stevens notes in the first lines of "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."

Raymond Leppard turned 88 in July.
"The figures of heaven" figure largely in Antonio Vivaldi's "Gloria," a performance of which crowned a program that had opened with greetings from university president Robert Manuel and plaudits to UIndy benefactor Christel DeHaan.

Leppard led the University of Indianapolis Concert Choir, two vocal soloists from the faculty, and the Indianapolis Festival Orchestra (a professional ensemble generously seeded with UIndy teachers) in a glowing performance. Paul Krasnovsky's training of the choir deserves much of the credit. Apart from individual voices occasionally standing out (in the tenor section, mostly), this was a creditable ensemble achievement.

Expressiveness was consistent and illuminating: the sustained phrase "bonae voluntatis" stressed the importance being "of good will" as the prerequisite of peace; "propter magnam gloriam tuam" was sung assertively, but not bawled out, to emphasize God's "great glory." The concluding fugue put a splendid seal upon the chorus's performance.

The soloists — Kathleen Hacker and Mitzi Westra — worked well together in their duet. Hacker's breath support failed her once in her aria "Domine Deus," a fact hardly worth noting except for the slight contrast it made with Pam Ajango French's limpid, full-toned oboe obbligato.

Some cynical wag once noted that if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. It's presumptuous to assess an artist's sincerity, and in sacred music, it's foolhardy to suggest that the quality depends on the singer's personal faith. To me, sincerity can be judged, somewhat gingerly, by how much a performance sounds invested in the unity of text and music; it's an attribute that rides on top of technical prowess.

Nearly two years ago, when Westra was alto soloist in an Encore Vocal Arts/Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra performance of Handel's "Messiah," I was touched by how well she fused tonal beauty and control with what has to be called sincerity. I had never heard a more moving "He was despised." Monday night I was equally impressed by her aria with chorus, "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei," particularly the firmly communicated feeling of personal appeal in "miserere nobis" ("have mercy upon us"), ending with a feather-soft trill of entreatment. Her solo aria, "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris," likewise had stability, warmth, genuineness, and a gorgeous alto tone.

The concert opened with UIndy composer John Berners's "Sinfonia, Part 2," a work commissioned for the 20th anniversary. To heighten the occasion, the devoted university patron DeHaan was presented with a framed copy of the score before the performance. (Berners admitted he couldn't stop writing when the work reached the requested length, which is why only the latter part of "Sinfonia" was presented.)

The work was admirable for its scope. It had roles for such outlier instruments (in modern orchestras playing 18th-century music) as baroque flute, electric piano, accordion (bayan), saxophone and flamboyant percussion. All had their say in order to salute various specialties among UIndy music faculty.

The 12-minute work seemed longer than that (in a good sense), because it comprised whimsy, sentimentality and hints of menace coherently. Episodes of stark, booming punctuation and ensemble brouhaha had dissipated by the time soft staccato flicks from a solo instrument or two ended the piece.

The concert's third work was what I hesitate to describe as probably the cutest of Mozart's mature piano concertos, No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449. Professor Richard Ratliff was the soloist, turning in his usual incisive, crisply defined performance in music of this era. He recovered well from a few unsounded notes in the first movement. By the finale, he seemed fully secure and even exuberant, finding common ground with the orchestra best where it most counted: in the fast 6/8 conclusion.

The orchestra sounded a bit woolly at times. In the first movement, balance and blend were poor. One got the unsettling sensation that each section was proceeding like toddlers engaged in parallel play. The slow movement found everyone working together much better. Leppard's acuity with texture and phrasing came through in a heady display of counterpoint and chromaticism in the last movement,  with Ratliff foremost.

"How easily the blown banners change to wings" (Stevens again) when our old philosopher in Indianapolis finally hits his stride.