Saturday, November 7, 2015

The ISO's guest soloist for the next two weeks displays a strong personality to impress upon Brahms (and the proper shelf life of reviews)


Joined at the hip, or the head, in the two piano concertos of Johannes Brahms, Krzysztof Urbanski and Dejan Lazic began their two-week collaboration Friday night.

It would take a Dr. Ben Carson to disconnect the two artists in this effort, so well-knit was their partnership in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Dejan Lazic: The hypnotist's gaze is no accident.
The conductor had the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra covering the full range of the young Brahms' mix of thorny and tender inspirations in this imposing work. The guest soloist projected a similar breadth of understanding — a little too highly colored here and there, but overall suitably emphatic and sensitive.

The orchestra launched the first movement with  unrestrained vigor, enunciating those seismic trills and D-centered rumbling with daunting conviction. The delayed piano entrance was invitingly set out. There was an unshakable unanimity of concept. The heavenly hush of the Adagio further confirmed how well-matched these musical partners were, especially near the end.

That's where Lazic was at his best among the concerto's reflective moments. The pianist's affinity for the stormier aspects of this young man's concerto exhibited consistent force. Where he was called upon to be properly incisive, he became demonstrative about it, his hands and arms springing off the keyboard when the notes were short and loud as if he'd just touched a hot stove. Though distracting, such gestures at least belonged to the communicative power he commanded.

But he seemed unwilling to enter fully into the work's naive episodes, especially in the "Poco piu moderato" unaccompanied portion of the first movement. That's where he interpreted the "espressivo" indication as a license for affectation. Cues for straightforward lyricism are everywhere in this variegated work, and Lazic took advantage of most of them, fortunately.

My reservations about Lazic's performance have to be set gingerly against the background of his quarrel with a much better positioned professional colleague, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post. Last year, the pianist made public his disgust at the online prominence of a mixed review the critic gave of a Lazic recital in 2010. He wanted it removed so Google searches of his name would not keep throwing Midgette's reservations about his playing in the public's face. He evoked the European Union's declaration of "a right to be forgotten" for people from all walks of life offended by the perpetual prominence of negative information online.

You can read Lazic's defense of this campaign on his website here.

It's an appalling document, at first taking issue with the corporate structure and priorities of the Internet, then quickly moving on to Midgette. At the risk of sounding tribal, I got versions of such complaining for many years as a newspaper music critic, but never so stoutly and extravagantly maintained. Still smarting from a five-year-old critique, Lazic denounces "the defamatory, offensive and mean-spirited nature of this review" and links it to her reviews of other musicians, which are "simply over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity."

Read and judge for yourself, but I must note Lazic's peroration, heavy in sputtering rhetorical questions. The most amazing of them asks if young people will even want to take up musical study if they suspect they will be savaged by a critic someday. I will answer this question: Yes, they will undertake such study, and they will continue if they love music. I never asked my now professional musician sons: Are you sure you want to do this? You may get a hostile review. Can you handle such a catastrophe?

The discouragement of musicians and their supporters by reviews that offend them is about as likely as the Egyptian pyramids having been built to store grain. Finally, here is my 2014 dystopian fantasy of what might happen if Lazic's wish to suppress unfavorable commentary were fulfilled.

Returning to more pleasant matters: Urbanski and the ISO opened Friday's concert with a brilliant account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major. The fully staffed string sections permitted  a kind of grandeur that is often primly avoided today in music written before the 19th century. This work emerged at the turn of that century, and its forward-looking nature is well-served by not overdoing its classical-period roots. The expressive breadth Urbanski elicited from his musicians was apt and refreshing.

The ISO's strings were well-balanced in all respects, the wind-instrument inflections deftly placed in prominence as needed. Tempos were brisk, but carefully so. Phrases were consistently well-turned, and the sudden accents that became a characteristic part of Beethoven's signature sprouted from the orchestral texture without disturbing the music's flow.