Sunday, May 8, 2016

Guest conductor saves an ISO concert marred by a substandard Mozart concerto performance

I think I have lived long enough to be no respecter of great age, particularly when venerability alone puts forth a claim on the public's attention that is otherwise undeserved.

Thus, I stood up with the rest of the audience at the conclusion of Menahem Pressler's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, Saturday to get a better view of the stage and attempt to bask in the occasion of his solo appearance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The 92-year-old Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University had just given a fitfully entertaining but largely excruciating performance. I will not belittle the physical challenges of old age, which I myself am approaching faster than I would like. What's at issue here is the propriety of an artist's counting on an audience's recognition of past excellence so that his ancient brow can be
Menahem Pressler: Thanks for the memories, but not the latest one.
crowned with fresh sprigs of laurel.

Pressler is steeped in the Classical style: As the founder of the Beaux Arts Trio and keeper of its flame up to the end, he made recordings of Mozart and Haydn piano trios that will always be worth cherishing. On Saturday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, there were aspects of his tone and phrasing (though some bordered on affectation) that recalled well-nurtured understanding, executive flair, and patrician delight in the music.

But soon after the opening orchestral tutti, the weight of many years made itself felt in the solo part. Pressler's playing was poky and sometimes off-balance. Guest conductor Roberto Abbado showed amazing flexibility keeping the orchestra in synchronization with the soloist. Pressler displayed a narrow but attractive range of color, but there is so much more in this masterpiece's spectrum. Abbado and the ISO gamely supplied it.

Speaking of spectra, the conventional range of tempo, on the slow end, puts Larghetto a step above Largo and just below Adagio. The second movement of this concerto is headed Larghetto, but Pressler's choice was almost inertly slow. This was absolute Largo — Largo assoluto. If you take a slow movement slower than anybody, does that make it more beautiful? I don't think so.

The pianist's  draggy manner in fast tempos returned in the finale. Any notion of playfulness in the Allegro scherzando seemed gingerly. There were flashes of temperament in the first cadenza, though the left hand was muddy. On the plus side, suggestions of sparkling conversation in the second were welcome. But sustained animation was a factor only when the orchestra dominated, as in the last few measures. After the reflexive acclaim that followed, Pressler was guided back onstage to offer some labored Chopin as an encore.

I wouldn't presume to disparage anyone's pleasures, especially those that don't hurt or annoy others or degrade the environment. Many concertgoers Saturday certainly felt that they had just witnessed greatness. At intermission, a respected member of Indianapolis' music community said to me: "That was like looking upon Michelangelo's David." Yes, I thought, if one imagines that glorious nude without the same center of virility that vandals keep lopping off a French statue of Hercules, forcing the city fathers to come up with a removable substitute.

Roberto Abbado: Guest game player and concert savior.
For me, the Pressler/Mozart experience made me wonder why "retirement" has become the "r-word" for so many distinguished performing artists. It may have been the worst concerto performance I've heard in nearly 30 years of attending ISO concerts, though Harvey Phillips' effortful, sputtering traversal of the Vaughan Williams tuba concerto years ago comes close. I'd be forced to wonder if Indiana University music faculty sign on to not knowing when to quit if not for the example of Janos Starker, who left the concert stage when he felt he could no longer live up to his own high standards.

The rest of the concert had plenty of vitality, the kind that didn't have to be summoned by nostalgia. The sober curtain-raiser was Brahms' Tragic Overture, op. 81, stitched together smoothly in a sturdy manner befitting the composer. Having staved off depression during intermission, I was grateful to take in a confident, cohesive performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61. After an unsteady initial trumpet call, just about everything went right.

During the ovation at the end, Abbado had the first violins take a bow for their dashing work in the Scherzo. It was well-deserved, as were solo bows by oboist Jennifer Christen, clarinetist David Bellman, and bassoonist Mark Ortwein. Also meriting kudos, by the way, is timpanist Jack Brennan, for his definitive work in the first and fourth movements.

That finale, which is Schumann at his sunniest and most ingratiating, went a long way toward lifting my mood. Even the achingly tender slow movement cheered me: I always get chills, from my eyeballs down to my socks, those two times the violins take a brief soaring phrase into the empyrean. As a physical effect, that was much preferable to the gut-wrenching uneasiness the concerto performance had inflicted on me.