Saturday, March 19, 2016

The ISO's singular concert this weekend: Outsize display of dance, comedy, and phenomenal playing by a clarinet virtuoso

Concertos for solo instrument and orchestra have a long history of being opportunities for display by the soloist.  Many such works in the Romantic era have been interpreted as contests between soloist and orchestra. The work given its American premiere Friday night at an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert was more like an effusive game under the spirited officiating of guest conductor Santtu-Mathias Rouvali.

Kriikku made an indelible impression.
And it was a game that guest artist Kari Kriikku won in a walk — and a dance, and a shuffle, and a slide or two, in addition to some amazing clarinet-playing. The Finnish musician commissioned a Clarinet Concerto from his countryman Kimmo Hakola in 2001. As he noted in a preconcert interview by Blake Schlabach, ISO assistant principal trombonist, the score was a mystery to him until Hakola at length delivered it to him. There had been no consultation or collaboration along the way.

Hakola must have known something about the commissioner's personality, however. As played at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in the ISO's only offering of this program, the work is full of whimsy and humor, most of it focused on the soloist. The first clue that something more than superlative playing would be involved in the audience's first acquaintance with this work (and probably also with this composer) came when Kriikku held up a finger (signaling "wait!") in the middle of a first-movement cadenza that required a page turn.

There had already been lots of high spirits in music characterized by churning energy chock-full of syncopated figures. From the soloist, both before and during that cadenza, we got lots of loud, high-register staccato patterns, great interval leaps, "growl" tones, tremolos, and chirps. The continuity of all these elements was secure, the spirited delivery of them immaculate. In the third movement, the soloist turned around and feigned impatient jealousy of ISO principal clarinetist David Bellman, who was given some of Kriikku's material during an orchestral tutti when the soloist was idle.

The second movement, "Hidden Songs," provided a respite, but still brought out virtuosity from the clarinetist in the
Santtu-Mathias Rouvali, also from Finland, also made an ISO debut.
wide variety of dynamic level in the solo lines. There was a lovely passage for clarinet and harp against sustained harmonics from the first violins, succeeded by chimes and a folksong-like episode, which showcased Kriikku's most lyrical playing.

The third movement, Allegro Farara, surprised everyone in part when the soloist did some tap-dancing steps, generally in a folk-dance style, but also moving his ankles in a side shuffle of the kind James Brown used to display, with a few glides a la Michael Jackson. That followed a rush offstage, probably to change shoes, as Kriikku pretended not to have all the music that he needed on his stand. His miming was at a Charlie Chaplin level, and not overdone, unless you insist that your concerto soloist should never show off. But then, without showing off, what would the prevalence of concertos in symphony concerts amount to?

The finale opened with a shout from the orchestra, and then it was off to the races for everybody. It should be made clear that Hakola has created more than a jokey kind of piece. He uses the orchestra imaginatively, and the tricks he puts the soloist through are mainly in the service of clarinet virtuosity at a level that few artists are capable of.

The concert opened with "Cataclysm," an eight-minute score that's this year's winner of the Marilyn K. Glick Young Composer Award.  Written by Daniel Temkin, the work traces dream states, according to the composer, and appropriately with low, shadowy sounds, soon to pull into well-defined shapes, some of them massive.  The swift accumulation of sensory overload is effectively managed, and mounts to a climax that is well-crafted, not just noisy in the service of the composition's title.

After intermission, Rouvali led a precisely detailed performance of the program's one mainstream work. It's not one often heard, but Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, op. 29, is much admired for its individuality and restless movement among key centers. Expressively, it skirts the personal expressiveness of Romanticism, even if the work — 100 years old this year — incorporates conflicts of such intensity that World War I must have been on the composer's mind. The work's title, "The Inextinguishable," is confusing because the adjective suggests it's a nickname of the symphony, like Schubert's "Unfinished" or Beethoven's "Pastoral." Instead, "Inextinguishable" is a substantive, indicating the life force, and much of the work's struggle represents it's triumph over negative forces.

All sections of the ISO played with animation and a kind of edge-of-the-seat commitment under a conductor so explicit in every gesture that he made the ISO's artistic director, Krzysztof Urbanski, look vague in comparison (which he isn't!). Hands and arms were always in high positions, rhythmically on the mark, indicating something new in every measure, which must have made Rouvali easy to follow.

The sad thing about this concert is that it was a one-off, and you can justifiably ask what marketing advantage is gained by scheduling single classical concerts that have no possibility of doing word-of-mouth business at the box office for one or two iterations. It seems likely there would have been plenty of buzz this weekend about the ISO's elfin  guest soloist and spectacular guest conductor.