Sunday, November 1, 2015

On All Hallows' Eve, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presents Mahler's blissful vision of heaven

In Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major, those who love his music just this side idolatry meet on common ground with many music-lovers who are left cold by most of it. The Fourth is somewhat shorter than the rest, for one thing, and relies more on charm and simpler emotional appeal than grand statements or despairing plunges.

Swedish soprano Malin Christensson
Shortly after he became the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's music director, Raymond Leppard gave an interview that briefly expressed his scorn for Mahler as an unstable egotist swinging wildly between poles of exaltation and self-loathing. He made an exception for the Fourth, which was the only Mahler symphony he conducted in his 14-year tenure.

Everything points up to the finale, "The Heavenly Life," with its text from "Youth's Magic Horn," the collection of modified folk poetry that often inspired Mahler. As performed brightly by this weekend's soprano soloist,  the finale made its gentle, unmistakable impact. Malin Christensson's voice had the glow and warmth required, and the naive description of heavenly affability and feasting amid eternal bliss suited her ingenuous expressive manner.

Alexander Shelley made his ISO debut.
Alexander Shelley conducted, evincing a steady rapport with all aspects of the score. Though it's a relatively sunny and uncomplicated work, it has some Mahlerian twists and turns, as well as evidence of the harmonic and coloristic daring that helps the Austrian composer's intensely concentrated output reach out to modernism. True, the egotism that repelled Leppard can still be detected. What seems adventurous and searching to some listeners strikes others as willful and showoffy, even bizarre, starting with those sleigh bells at the outset.

Anxiety barges into the mostly serene third movement, the work's longest. It was during the ISO's masterly performance of it Saturday night that Mahler's resemblance to the American poet Walt Whitman struck me. Like Whitman, Mahler could have declared, "I am large, I contain multitudes"; he told Jan Sibelius that he thought a symphony should contain a world.

What people love about both artists — who, by the way, wrote their best work between their middle thirties and their middle forties — is the continual impress of a personality upon the material. Music is fortunate in that it can mask the personality's prominence; poetry that relentlessly expresses an individual keeps throwing the perpendicular pronoun into our faces.

The clarity and vividness of different instrumental lines was notable in the first movement, which featured a dramatic slowing of tempo near the end, just before an accelerating sweep to the final bar.
Philip Palermo's second violin (tuned unconventionally to give the effect of a tinny country fiddle) gave a credible Halloween inflection to the second movement.

In the finale, when St. Peter is depicted running to the pond to catch fish for St.Martha to cook, the mutual scurrying of soloist and orchestra wasn't as clearly synchronized as everything else seems to have been. And at first, Christenssen's German diction sounded cloudier than it had in Alban Berg's "Seven Early Songs," which preceded intermission.

Berg's devotion to his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, was not so complete when he wrote this work that he eschewed the influence of the two giant Richards of Austro-German music: Wagner and Strauss. These lovely settings of German poems brought out the soloist's best work consistently, with Shelley sensitively guiding the accompaniment. Berg plays with the variety of ways a solo voice can interact with a large orchestra; there's a myriad of textural shifts, including brief solos, and a considerable dynamic range, especially in "Summer Days," the last song.

The concert opened with a version of Bartok's Romanian Dances, evocative works focused mainly on the strings, with some spotlighting here and there of clarinet, piccolo, and violin. The ISO's lively, high-definition account faltered only in the well-labeled "Fast Dance," but righted itself quickly — the pace at which this amusing set of dances concludes.