Saturday, February 6, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its maestro do a final space walk before returning to Earth

With "The Cosmos in Music" as its midwinter festival, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its public seem to have come a little closer to knowing its first 21st-century music director. Almost paradoxically, it's taken a three-week musical exploration of outer space for audiences to get down to earth with him.

Krzysztof Urbanski: Star-gazimg through music.
Of course, Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessor, Mario Venzago, ushered us into the present century, but the current maestro, just 33 years old, is fully a child of the millennium. Thus, it seems particularly fitting that he not only came up with the three-program "Cosmos" exploration, but that it was capped by the performance of music from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick's film was new, 2001 seemed a visionary benchmark in human progress. Looking back today, the year is more darkly associated with the events of Sept. 11.

Urbanski said last spring when announcing the 2015-16 season at Hilbert Circle Theatre that, since boyhood, he has been "inspired by the cosmos, the stars, and astronomy." He also praised "2001: A Space Odyssey" in terms he echoed in remarks from the podium Friday night. "It's one of the greatest movies I've ever seen — a very philosophical movie."

Thus, the festival was appropriately capped by music Kubrick used for his cinematic inquiry into human origins and development, as seen from a universal perspective. The centerpiece had to be "Also sprach Zarathustra," Richard Strauss' interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's tortured examination of human destiny and purpose, as reflected in the legendary religious figure Zoroaster.

Poster for a pathbreaking movie
One of Strauss' biographers has this to say of how the work starts: "The bombastic opening fanfare — trivialized and commodified by popular culture — is Strauss's best-known passage, even if the listener may never have heard of the composer." Between those two dashes lies limitless disdain for the use to which Kubrick put that fanfare. For Urbanski, probably, the fanfare is ennobled, as one masterpiece is linked to a later one, yielding the added benefit of the near-capacity audience at Friday's concert. Is this trivialization? Commodification? We had better make the best of it, then.

The ISO's performance moved from that noble beginning with great clarity in all the work's episodes, depicting the hero as a representative human quester over his proper place in the universe. The ongoing struggle with nature ends equivocally, with an unresolved contention between the pitches C and B. Particularly effective episodes were the slow fugue, beginning in the lower strings, and the "Dance Song" portion with the composer's buoyant gift for personalizing the Viennese waltz. Solos were brought off with idiomatic zest, none more so than concertmaster Zach De Pue's.

"Also sprach Zarathustra" inspired the young Bela Bartok on a compositional career that became one of the 20th century's most significant. A later Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti, wrote "Atmospheres" in perhaps his most extreme exploration of breaking down the symphony orchestra into its constituent parts and recombining it. Everyone in the large orchestra has something distinctive to contribute, and the piece, with its keen gradations of dynamics and slow-motion, evolving sonorities, came off impressively Friday night.

The strings were featured in mildly modernist lyricism of Aram Khachaturian's "Gayane's Adagio" from the ballet "Gayane," given a poised yet intense reading. The first half concluded with a display of the most enduring succession of waltz melodies in a single work, Johann Strauss Jr.'s "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." If the Danube River, at least as it flows through Vienna, is less blue and beautiful than it once was, it retains those pristine qualities in this music. Under Urbanski's guiding hand, tempo fluctuations and the balance of both lingering and forward motion were exquisitely brought off in Friday's performance.

This is a program with a vast expressive and technical range, befitting its connection to a movie best described by a vogue word of its time: mind-blowing. It was played in that spirit, and it brought with it particular insights into what makes Krzysztof Urbanski tick.