Saturday, September 26, 2015

ISO's annual Gala Concert includes a powerful amount of fancy fiddling (from Joshua Bell and a possibly shy, definitely retiring Zach De Pue)

It always seems a gala occasion when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gets native son Joshua Bell on the schedule as soloist. As often as he has returned here, he's been solid gold at the box office.
Joshua Bell is always good for business at the ISO.

So much the better that on an officially Big Deal program — the annual "Opening Night Gala" — the Bloomington-born and Indiana University-trained superstar violinist graced the stage of a packed Hilbert Circle Theatre. The ISO was conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, beginning his fifth season as music director, and ensemble-in-residence Time for Three  shared the spotlight with Bell.

The vehicle for his guest appearance with the ISO was a work written with him in mind by William Brohn, "West Side Story Suite." Leonard Bernstein's well-known score is treated in this work to a transformation that highlights musical (specifically violinistic) values rather than the arc of the drama, and that's how it should be. For instance: Preceded by a fiery solo cadenza,  "Somewhere" comes near the end, as it does in the show. But it yields to a whirlwind conclusion with reminders of the lively "America" and "Mambo" from the first act.

Brohn is most straightforward with the original material in "Maria," which doesn't bear much tinkering in order to be shown to best advantage. Other favorite songs, such as "Tonight" and "America," get lively treatment, showing off both soloist and orchestra. Bell played with full-out commitment to the score, displaying great variety across the dynamic and articulative spectrums.

A recitativelike opening for the violin put the audience on notice that the 20-minute work would be as much about the violin as any virtuoso concerto in the standard repertoire. Whether in filigree or in soaring melodic lines, Bell and the ISO made this an attractive new way of hearing this music.

Urbanski and the ISO opened the concert with Igor Stravinsky's 1942 arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Despite murmurs from the audience when Urbanski named the arranger, this version was thoroughly respectful of the melody. You could even sing along with it; many concertgoers did. The harmonic motion beneath it was different, however — less settled and less directed toward cadences.

There followed selections from Prokofiev's ballet score of the late 1930s for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The feuding families were introduced with the lightning strikes of the "Montagues and Capulets" section.  The next excerpt, "Morning Dance," started out blurred but gained clarity quickly. "Juliet as a Young Girl" was delightfully sketched. The roaring climax of any suite drawn from Prokofiev's score, "Death of Tybalt," was performed with riveting intensity. The pastel colors of "Morning Serenade" were scrupulously filled in, including a fleet solo by ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue.


Future crossings of Meridian by Time for Three will have a different fiddler in the middle.
De Pue will pay increased, less divided attention to such duties from now on. In the course of the coming season, he will gradually yield his membership in Time for Three, which he co-founded at the start of the century with a couple of Curtis Institute schoolmates. Without any mention Sunday of his phased withdrawal, De Pue was joined by his Time for Three colleagues in a piece Bell provided for the occasion, Edgar Meyer's "Death by Triple Fiddle."


There could be no doubt of the concertmaster's commitment musically to this work. But in addition to his stated desire to focus on his ISO duties, it struck me that De Pue may not be entirely comfortable with the flamboyance developed as part of the show by his fellow Tf3 members, violinist Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer.

Bell led the way in a piece that distributes musical material in a bluegrass style expertly among the three violins. De Pue's bluegrass and country fiddling credentials run deep, but this appearance reinforced my impression from several of Time for Three's concerts here: that the exuberant showmanship of Kendall and Mayer is not second nature to De Pue.

While Bell moves and plays expressively, he and De Pue are cut from the same cloth of concert artist elan. It's hard to be all kinds of musician in both how you look and how you play, however much your heart may be in more than one musical camp. Part of De Pue's value to Time for Three might have included being, shall we say, "the quiet Beatle" for purposes of contrast with Kendall.

But he will have more of value to contribute to the ISO's development as he hits the road far less often from here on out — and by next season, not at all, as Tf3 continues to ascend in popularity with his replacement, Nikki Chooi.

No one should forget that his position as ISO concertmaster enabled the huge outreach potential of Time for Three to be exercised here more than anywhere else. Indianapolis has benefited from De Pue's riding both horses at once in the musical circus. For a still-young musician, that's a worthy legacy already.