Saturday, February 20, 2016

Very recent music is the centerpiece of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony concert

Young composers are creating works that show the influence of pop music and electronics — which in turn means exploiting the access everyone has to all music nowadays.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played this weekend's sole Lilly Classical Series event Friday night with compositions by two young women who represent this openness to a postmodernist aesthetic.

Sarah Kirkland Snider
The works were paired with pieces by established composers, chosen by the living composers, to make for a satisfying program conducted by Edwin Outwater. It's only regrettable the concert was a rare one-off on the ISO schedule.

Three songs from "Unremembered," an expressively expansive song cycle by Sarah Kirkland Snider, featured Shara Worden on the first half. The singer and the composer have collaborated before on "Penelope."

Worden made a strong impression nearly two years ago with the ISO soloing in Henryk Gorecki's wildly popular "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (Symphony No. 3). She is billed in the program as a soprano, though that classically trained register was the focus mainly in a prelude to her "Unremembered" outing Friday: The prelude was the last song in Franz Schubert's "Winterreise," "Der Leiermann" (The Organ-Grinder), with Sylvia Patterson Scott at the piano. But the full range is available to her, and was used to great effect in Snider's piece.

Snider's 13-part composition, set to poetry by Nathaniel Bellows, blends prerecorded tracks with live vocalism and a resourceful use of the orchestra. In the three songs performed Friday, so much more of the orchestral accompaniment stood out compared to the versions I heard online, where the mixing board seems to be in charge. In "The Swan," a piano interlude effectively heightened the tension of the first two stanzas, and the ascent into Worden's upper range, heralded by an orchestral crescendo, made vivid the swan's destruction by a truck backing up. The appearance of the swan in death was underlined starkly by the two unaccompanied words concluding the song: "Undone embroidery."

"The Guest" opened the selection of excerpts, with repetitive woodwind figures at the start marking the report of the guest's disappearance. The electronic overlays became intense as the song proceeded, with passages in canon in the final quatrain. Most explosive was the final selection, "The Witch," with the orchestra bursting into bouts of virtuoso ecstasy.

Snider's choice of a work from the mainstream was "The Oceanides" by Jan Sibelius. It's an abstract tone poem focusing on the sea nymphs of Greek mythology. Put together out of a few thematic gestures more than real themes, it gradually makes a transition from the ocean as both calming and sprightly before the sea's full force emerges in outbursts of trombones and horns (which I thought could have been even huger in this performance).

Outwater also showed his conducting chops in the mainstream selection by the program's other composer, Caroline Shaw. It was Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn." The opening chorale was stated with scrupulous warmth. The horns came through in the second Vivace; there was nice dynamic variety, sensitively managed, in the Andante con moto, and solid balance and expressive dignity among all sections in the finale.
Caroline Shaw is the youngest composer ever to have received the Pulitzer Prize.

Having performed a co-commissioned new piece moments before, Shaw returned to the stage to explain her Brahms selection, which she first enjoyed as a player as a teenager. Her musicianship is broadly based, as is indicated not only by her presence on this concert as both violinist and composer, but by her membership in the prize-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

The composer's dedication to music of the past goes way back to the Renaissance, but her "Lo," a piece for violin and orchestra Shaw declines to describe as a violin concerto, recalled in many places the playful mixture of simplicity and complexity in a colonial American idiom that Henry Cowell exploited in his "Hymns and Fuguing Tunes."

In the course of the two-movement piece — the ordering "I. II. III" on the program's title page, with no words after any of the Roman numerals, is mystifying — the orchestral role is sometimes laconic, sometimes outspoken about insisting on the solo instrument's partnership. Shaw played with the assurance that any aspect of musical partnership her compositional muse comes up with is fine with her.

The solo part, not strictly notated and thus an enduring mystery to the conductor (Outwater admitted), varies from steady, unromantic lyricism expressed in long note values to episodes of feverish string-crossing. I must admit I couldn't pick up the baroque dance forms mentioned in the program notes. They may be there as structural scaffolding not intended to be perceived.

I have no idea what the "millennial-friendly dialect" that one critic said Shaw is speaking might be. I suppose I will have to discover a Fountain of Youth before I become conversant in it. This was at least a work worth hearing again, however.