Saturday, April 23, 2016

All-French program by Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra features a rare Wurlitzer display on the classical series

Paul Jacobs stuck to the French theme in his encore, too: the popular Widor Toccata.
Local organists swelled the concert audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra welcomed Paul Jacobs as featured soloist in Alexandre Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra.

Jacobs is prominent for his Grammy Award (the first for an organist) and chairmanship of the organ department at the Juilliard School. The vehicle for his ISO debut this weekend (the program will be repeated at 7 tonight) is a towering example of the French romantic organ tradition. That's the most substantial school of organ composition since J.S. Bach, who was a school unto himself.

Laid out in the conventional three movements, with grandeur the keynote to the first and third and a meditative respite in the middle, the work made a powerful effect Friday. Jacobs' command of the Wurlitzer's resources was immaculate.

The clarity of articulation in the outer movements went a long way toward maximizing coordination with the orchestra, which was under the baton of guest conductor Matthew Halls. The statement of the first movement's main theme on the pedal board was authoritatively outlined. Of course, there was plenty of opportunity for the breathless thunder of organ and full orchestra as well. The third-movement climax evoked the Napoleonic splendor that dominated the serious side of 19th-century French music.

Matthew Halls: Engaging notes from the podium.
The blend of reed stops chosen for the Pastorale: Andante quasi allegro set the stage for the delayed entrance of the orchestra woodwinds. The second movement also had some lulling string-section responses to the organ's wistfulness.

Halls is a Baroque specialist from the United Kingdom, his perch in this country being the Oregon
Bach Festival, where he succeeded founder Helmuth Rilling as artistic director. But his crisp podium style seemed to work well with the more highly colored and rhythmically fluid repertoire he brought with him this weekend. He also talked concisely and informatively about three of the pieces before each performance.

An early work by Olivier Messiaen opened the concert. "Les Offrandes oubliees" moves without let-up or apology onto the high ground of the composer's firm Catholic faith.  A triptych of orchestral reflections on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, "The Forgotten Offerings" (to give its title in English) seems precocious for a 22-year-old, despite earlier benchmarks of compositional savoir faire notched famously by Mozart and Mendelssohn.

There's an absolute confidence in Messiaen's mission-driven handling of the orchestra: The penetrating, sustained outburst in the middle is rhythmically spicy in a way that set a pattern for the composer's mature manipulation of rhythm as a structural element. The finale is prayerful and sonically chaste, focusing on violins and violas, who were fully evocative under Halls' control Friday. The opening presents two layers of slow music, strings contrasting with winds, that readily achieved an anxious unity.

After intermission, Halls led the ISO in two well-known works, even if Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" is so mainly for its historical importance. For jazz fans, the 15-minute work feels like the most authentic among "classical" compositions in evoking early jazz. A reduced orchestra, somewhat similar to dance bands from the Palm Court heyday until the swing era, presents a balletic creation-myth scenario, well explained by Halls before the performance.

Excessive resonance in the rambunctious portions of the work, the fugue in particular, was its only shortcoming. The big pluses were Mark Ortwein's gently moaning saxophone solos, with additional showcases for Jennifer Christen (oboe) and Samuel Rothstein (clarinet) capably delivered. The hushed ending perfectly captured, in jazz-inflected terms, a prelapsarian Eden.

The concert closed with a poised rendition of Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The five pieces were deftly detailed here. As cleverly orchestrated and buoyant as anything the composer ever wrote — and there's lots of competition in those areas from other Ravel works — the suite received a subtle performance in terms of color and dynamics. Everyone's childhood should have such magic in it.