Saturday, April 2, 2016

In Prokofiev, James Ehnes wows an ISO audience as much as 'The Great Gate of Kiev'

One of the few quotations from a musician I've saved comes from James Ehnes, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's guest soloist in an all-Russian program this weekend.

James Ehnes soloed in Prokofiev.
It's advice for violinists (yet applicable to all musicians), but I like it especially because it's a beautiful piece of rhetoric. Its balanced cadences have their own music, and seem a perfect fit for the kind of poised musicianship the Canadian violinist exhibited Friday night in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G  minor.

"If you're practicing for clarity, you'll build strength, and strength will build speed," Ehnes said. "But if you're practicing for speed, then you're never going to build the strength that will lead to clarity."

The Greeks called such a device chiasmus, but never mind. The wisdom in those words came through in Ehnes' performance, which was capped by an astonishingly poised, almost patrician display of virtuosity in his encore, the Presto finale of Bach's Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Violin.

The man from Manitoba indicated from the first phrase of the concerto his measured, vital approach to music, the firm singing quality of his tone, and the polish and lilt of his phrasing. Never expressively neutral, Ehnes nonetheless balanced the tenderness and bravura that Prokofiev's work is full of in the most eloquent manner.

Perhaps influenced by his ambivalence about returning to his native Russia and the duty he undertook to please the Stalin regime through it, Prokofiev here tempers his characteristic brashness with some of his most fetching melodies. Ehnes displayed full-bodied lyricism in the slow movement, with long, well-connected phrases, defined scrupulously.

The returned expatriate could never entirely suppress his muse's brightest-guy-in-the-class high spirits, of which the second violin concerto offers ample proof. The bumptious finale is a particularly fine example, with its cheeky trumpet-violin duetting and its fresh use of percussion, castanets and bass drum in particular.

Hans Graf, this weekend's guest conductor, fashioned a responsive accompaniment from the podium. He had opened the concert with three short character pieces by Anatoli Liadov, one of Prokofiev's teachers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The young composer, self-confident and bristling, once said that if he'd shown his early compositions to Liadov, he would have been kicked out of class.

In "Baba-Yaga," "The Enchanted Lake," and "Kikimora," the senior composer set down evocations of folklore that have plenty of life and mystery about them. They are firmly in the 19th-century field of program music, where picturesqueness in well-orchestrated terms was a high value, particularly as Russian composition was coming into its own. Prokofiev, particularly in his barbed early years, was working out of a different bag entirely.

The galloping rhythms of "Baba-Yaga" offered an intriguing contrast with use of the same raw material that we'd hear from Mussorgsky in "Pictures at an Exhibition." "The Enchanted Lake" sent up mists from a glowing surface, with harp and wavering string figures. Roger Roe's English-horn solo highlighted the slow music of "Kikimora," whose title figure represented a menace that came alive as the fast section was launched.

After intermission came the familiar Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's solo piano suite, memorializing his short-lived friend Victor Hartmann, an architect whose show of meticulous sketches inspired a musical work of genius. There were a few fine solos, from Marvin Perry's broad, inviting statement of the "Promenade" theme to Mark Ortwein's nostalgic alto-saxophone solo in "The Old Castle."

The initial picture represented, a fantastic "Gnome," fully illustrated Ravel's idiosyncratic gift for tailoring piano music (in other works, his own) in splendid orchestral outfits. In this performance, pacing was superb throughout. "Bydlo," a panoramic genre painting of an ox-cart lumbering by, moved with the inexorable pace of primitive transportation. The frolicking children in "Tuileries" couldn't have been more mischievous and animated.

The grandiose finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev," had its majesty evenly distributed — nothing peaked too soon. The "chanting" interludes for winds calmly represented the somber imprimatur on civic life extended by the Russian Orthodox Church. Like everything Mussorgsky turned his hand to, it was a touch of Old Russia that Friday night was well realized by the ISO. But its survival for audiences since 1922 has depended upon that bygone culture being seen through the filter of the canny Frenchman Ravel.