Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hanging meanings on the moon and other heavenly bodies: ISO's "Cosmos Music Festival" enters its second week

From mythological beings flung into heavenly immortality as constellations, through astrology, astronomy, and philosophical speculation, looking into the night sky has long passed beyond simple admiration.

The second week of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Cosmic Music Festival" trains its sights on musical interpretations of the larger meanings of stars, planets, comets, asteroids and just about anything else except what man has thrown up there over the last forty years.

Friday night's opening concert confirmed there are works you just can't avoid in such a survey, in
Jun Märkl brought out the full vitality of Holst and Hindemith.
particular Paul Hindemith's "Die Harmonie der Welt" Symphony and that perpetual blockbuster, "The Planets" by Gustav Holst.

Popular guest conductor Jun Märkl is on the podium tonight at the Hilbert Circle Theatre and Sunday afternoon at Avon High School. The Japanese-German maestro radiates affability and intensity in equal proportions, in addition to displaying an electrifying engagement with a score's three-dimensional rhythmic personality.

These qualities were well put to use in the program's two major works. The Hindemith symphony — in three dense, busy movements — was a first performance in ISO history, according to the program book. It's not surprising that the German composer's music has little more than a sturdy niche in today's musical gallery.

Hindemith had as intimate a knowledge of the symphony orchestra's instruments as any composer who ever wrote for it. Ideologically, he represented no-nonsense resistance to both the tattered banners of romanticism and the onrush of atonality. He was all about the craft of composition, and that is as fully evident in "Die Harmonie der Welt" as anywhere. Here, he develops themes from his opera about Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who interpreted his discovery of the laws of planetary motion as indicators of universal harmony. That idea goes way back to ancient thinkers like Pythagoras, whose speculative theories were elaborated by Boethius in the sixth century.

Boethius' work gave Hindemith his three-movement scheme, depicting in succession music as we know it produced by voices and instruments, music as a vehicle for uniting body and soul, and music of the spheres. Holding that lightly in the mind, the listener may well experience a substitute for real enjoyment, as I did Friday night.

And just what is this ersatz enjoyment? "Die Harmonie der Welt" is easy to follow, despite its complicated surface. Imitative counterpoint runs riot (insofar as the very word "riot" ever applies to this composer): Anything you hear from one part of the orchestra will soon be repeated somewhere else. You can bank on it. The ISO's performance was crystal-clear, for the most part. At the end, two principals got well-deserved solo bows: flutist Karen Moratz and bassoonist John Wetherill.

But the formal uprightness of Hindemith's music was indelibly satirized by the English conductor-composer Constant Lambert in "Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline." It's hard to get his skewering of Hindemith in general out of your head: "Listening to his firmly wrought works we seem to see ourselves in a block of hygienic and efficient workmen's flats built in the best modernismus manner, from which emerge troops of healthy uniformed children on their way to the communal gymnasium." Exactly.

Before I part company with Lambert, it is useful to mention his succinct dismissal of another Hindemith piece that is also apt for "Die Harmonie der Welt": "Its combination of natural aridity with deliberate virtuosity is indeed most displeasing. Exhibitionism is only to be tolerated in the physically attractive."

Enter "The Planets," a physically attractive suite — a 20th-century bathing beauty — of seven pieces fleshing out the astrological personalities of an equal number of planets in our solar system. Holst's score is definitely exhibitionistic, but his expressive palette is so much richer that "The Planets" has long been securely in the repertoire, whenever a symphony orchestra wants to hire the extra players needed to bring it to life. In "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" alone, one finds the kind of sensuous harmonies that almost never crossed Hindemith's mind.

What Jupiter would look like to us if it were as close as the moon.
True, the score is almost too accessible, in that parts of it can become tiresome with only slight familiarity. In my case, favorites among these portraits have varied with my advancing age. At about 20, I thought there was hardly anything more captivating than "Mars, the Bringer of War." Stunning as its thrusting bravado is, in Friday's performance it had some deliciously drawn-out tension before the resumption of the juggernaut 5/4 march.

In middle age, "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" was a huge favorite of mine. There's so much variety in this central part of the suite, it's as if Holst couldn't bear to let go of it. As it got under way, the ISO sounded rough and (not quite) ready, but the movement jelled nicely well before the grandly hymnlike middle section. In the ISO's magnificent account, the sheer hugeness of both the planet and the chief Olympian god came to mind as vividly as this image that recently appeared on my Facebook or Twitter feed.

As I enter old age, I connect inevitably with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," though it contains portents that make me uncomfortable. But the movement I like best of all now is "Neptune, the Mystic." This finale shows off Holst at his most transcendent, somewhat on the order of my favorite composition of his, "The Hymn of Jesus." With women of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir singing wordlessly from the balcony, the ISO on Friday gave a fine account, after some errant woodwind tuning at the start righted itself.

Like the first "Cosmos" program, this one had a brief vocal selection between the two major works. "O du, mein holder Abendstern," an enduring melody representative of early Richard Wagner before he outgrew arias, was sung by Wolfgang Brendel of the Jacobs School of Music faculty at Indiana University. He sang like a voice teacher.

 Still, the performance suggested the wise forbearance of Wolfram, the character who addresses the evening star after a poignant parting from the saintly Elizabeth in "Tannhäuser." Brendel's seasoned baritone sounded a little bare on top, and the repetition of the last line, "ein sel'ger Engel dort zu werden," drifted slightly out of tune. The cello section solidly reprised the main part of the melody at the end to put the performance on a firm footing.