Saturday, October 17, 2015

Short ISO Classical weekend makes its point substantially in Mendelssohn-Tchaikovsky-Elgar program

One full-length traversal of this weekend's Classical Series program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was not enough, but a schedule that has to make way for accompanying "Back to the Future" next Wednesday probably had something to do with the curtailment.

There was much that was wholly satisfying — beyond guest conductor Michael Francis' compact, enthralling oral program note from the podium — in the journey from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. But Friday night was your only chance to make the trip with the ISO.

Francis is newly installed as conductor of the Florida Orchestra, and radiates the unassuming gregariousness easily associated with both his British origin and the laidback ambiance of Tampa Bay, where he's now settled with his wife and their infant daughter.

He proved adept as an accompanist, guiding the ISO smartly in support of Jinjoo Cho's fiery performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Cho, gold medalist at last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, astonished with her firm, large tone at the outset.

To my ears, it took her a while to personalize this warhorse. Up until the first-movement cadenza, her phrasing was lush and pretty much uninflected. When it came to the cadenza, she gave herself plenty of room to breathe and displayed a good sense of drama.

Michael Francis made a successful return visit to the ISO.
The remainder of the first movement sparkled, the Canzonetta was pure balm (with particularly fine coordination between soloist and orchestra), and the finale featured Cho's consistently incisive articulation of the off-to-the-races portion and the kind of peasant heartiness in the slow music that famously offended Eduard Hanslick's critical nose almost a century-and-a-half ago.

On Indianapolis' first distinctly chilly evening in months, the soloist stoked our memories of the season just past with her encore, a bluesy unaccompanied arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," with the theme attractively stated in canon.

Francis and the ISO caught the becalmed mood of the first part of "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" perfectly, which made the transition to the energetic second half of the piece all the more exciting. The  ensemble exhilaration was well-maintained right through to the triumph of trumpets and chords of gratitude for safe arrival in harbor at the very end.

After intermission came the work no British conductor can fail to put across as a masterpiece. Or so one supposes. Francis drew from the ISO a delightfully variegated performance. In his podium remarks, he briefly alluded to attempts to tease out the mystery of the theme's origin, dismissing them to focus on an anecdote suggesting that what the composer came up with as the work's foundation was purely himself. Francis' viewpoint is well worth respect, though I'll admit to a fondness for the theory that Elgar's theme is a version of what Mozart presents in the "Andante" of the "Prague" Symphony.

At any rate, I should call attention to the sublime hushed mood he and the ISO established over the "Nimrod" Variation, the most emotionally penetrating music Elgar ever wrote.  Cello, viola, and clarinet solos (the last one from the new assistant principal, Samuel Rothstein) were all first-rate, and the brass sections were formidable and unified in the 11th variation.

Its ruddy vigor heralded the finale three variations later, which made for a stirring summation of this multifaceted composer's salute to some friends and close associates. As played Friday evening it was, as Francis also proposed, a Q.E.D. of the universal need to burst out of solitude and embrace other people in their sometimes exasperating eccentricities and unique lovableness.

P.S. For the historically minded, here's my assessment of Cho's performance of a Mozart concerto in the classical finals of the 2014 IVCI:

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