Sunday, December 13, 2015

ISO's conductor laureate bids farewell to the annual Classical Christmas series he started

Moving haltingly at age 88, Raymond Leppard, upon ascending the podium and lifting his baton, still elicits graceful music from the orchestra he guided here for 14 seasons.

Raymond Leppard
Music-lovers were able to take in this treat for the last time Saturday evening as Leppard conducted a Classical Christmas concert — that annual respite from Yuletide Celebration on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's schedule. Since 1998, Leppard has kept the core repertoire alive in the minds, hearts and fingers of ISO musicians. Together, they have sustained the ISO's classical fan base through the run of the popular Yuletide Celebration (which accounted for the absence of many members and the presence of many replacements Saturday).

For the finale at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, Leppard chose repertoire that (he announced) was inclined to a more spiritual emphasis than some of the series' predecessors. After the limpid flute melodies of Gluck's "Air" and "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from "Orfeo ed Euridice," the centerpiece was one of Franz Schubert's early masses, No. 2 in G major. That also served as the main showcase for regular Classical Christmas guest Apollo's Voice, an outstanding chamber choir based at Indiana University directed by Jan Harrington. Six soloists from the group acquitted themselves marvelously.

This is a simple setting, in which the ability to project the straightforward charm and lyricism natural to the teenage Schubert is uppermost. This sort of writing is a snug fit for Leppard's characteristic musicianship. Both orchestra and chorus exhibited shapely phrasing and understated expressiveness.

There's little drama here: Composers often flexed that kind of muscle in setting the "Credo," contrasting the glum "He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried" with the subsequent celebration of the Resurrection. Schubert simply underlines the passage I've quoted with trenchant "marcato" writing for the strings, which speaks volumes; when Jesus rises, so does the brightening texture.

It's straightforward stuff. The Credo ends quietly, and so does the concluding Agnus Dei — in this performance with a feather-soft diminuendo. The  fugal "Osanna in excelsis" that caps both the Sanctus and the Benedictus is almost startling, given the absence of counterpoint in the work as a whole.

(Someday I will have to find out why so many choral directors train their singers to pronounce the mass's initial word, "Kyrie," as if there were an "h" after the "K." Thus pronounced, the consonant sounds identical to the "Ch" in "Christe," which begins the second phrase of the "Kyrie" section. Since those initial words begin with two different Greek letters, kappa and chi, I've often wondered if we should hear the distinction.)

To showcase the orchestra, Leppard chose one of the Handel concerti grossi from Opus 3 that he recorded decades ago with the English Chamber Orchestra. Saturday's performance sounded much different to me, a little more stately in the first Allegro, for instance, which keeps that insubstantial movement from sounding perfunctory, as Handel sometimes can. The soloing — by concertmaster Zach De Pue and principal oboist Jennifer Christen — was first-class.

Leppard is a famous adapter, which occasioned much controversy in his native Britain early in his career. To conclude the concert, he adapted and arranged Hugo Wolf's "Schlafendes Jesuskind" (Sleeping Christ-child), a solo lied turned here into a choral number for Apollo's Voice. With a string orchestra replacing the original piano accompaniment, the late romantic harmonies were somewhat softened in comparison..

The translation of the Eduard Mörike poem Wolf set smooths out the knotted text of the original, yet retains the foreshadowing of Jesus' suffering that the Nativity scene evokes in pious minds. Leppard used a "singing translation," of course, that fits the notes well. The English text's presence of Mary and the wish that we could bear Christ's agony are imported from mere hints in the original.
Joelle Harvey had much to do with making "Past Three O'Clock" the concert''s highlight.

Soprano Joelle Harvey (no relation to the blogger) soloed in Leppard's stunning "Past Three O'clock: A Sequence of Carols." Her performance was remarkable for clarity of diction, expressive warmth,  and a consistently open, well-rounded tone.

Leppard's signature — his temperament as well as his musical skills — is all over this set. The carols are performed with minimal pauses, often linked by chimes. The arrangements reflect Leppard's innate good taste. He resists anything showy, and he avoids excessive underlining of each carol's mood. For example, a muted string quartet lies behind the opening of "In the Bleak Midwinter."  With a change of key signaled by the chimes, woodwinds perk up a vision of Madonna-and-child affection in "I Saw a Fair Maiden." The finale, "Lord of the Dance," is joyous without going off the deep end of exuberance.

This exquisite set sums up, as performed Saturday evening, what I want to remember as much as anything else in the Raymond Leppard ISO legacy.