Sunday, May 22, 2016

In a lively Romantic survey, Matthew Kraemer completes his first season as Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra music director

Matthew Kraemer is an Indiana native and Butler alumnus.
The silly clip art heading Matthew Kraemer's column in the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra program booklet was perhaps chosen as a sign — always useful in our pop-culture milieu — that "we're not taking ourselves too seriously, folks."

OK, I get that, but really: A wild-maned clownish figure, his coattails improbably flapping behind him, goggle-eyed, arms raised (baton in the LEFT hand), standing on what looks like the sort of cylindrical box the big cats in the circus used to be trained to wait upon, twitching, between tricks.

But there are no tricks beyond good preparation and musical insight as the ICO extends its 31-year  viability as the city's other professional orchestra, newly under Kraemer's leadership. With an acoustically friendly home in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the chamber orchestra showed itself poised for further growth as the new maestro concluded his first season as music director Saturday night.

The ICO welcomed a Juilliard School student, 19-year-old Angie Zhang, as guest soloist. She's thus about the age Frederic Chopin was when he composed his E minor piano concerto, which Zhang performed with ingratiating panache to open the program. Overstating nothing, but never too reticent to bring some depth to the music's sparkle, Zhang was effectively partnered by the orchestra.
Angie Zhang studies at Juilliard.

The accompaniment is well-known for its relative superficiality: In the first-movement tutti introduction, however, Kraemer elicited all the short-breathed counterpoint the fledgling composer wrote — a reminder of Chopin's admiration for J.S. Bach.

It's undeniable, however, that once the piano gets involved, the orchestra gathers around just to support the solo instrument, like Orpheus charming all the woodland creatures into rapt pleasure. Carrying out that function, the ICO matched dynamics and tempo shifts perfectly to the soloist, with a particularly deft diminuendo at the end of the second movement.

Kraemer chose a late romantic miniature for just after intermission. The delicate sonorities of the gently contrasted pair of movements in Edward Elgar's "Dream Children" were right at home in the responsive hall. The piece, a rare local example (since Raymond Leppard left the music directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)  of Elgar in his lesser-known works, was kind of a palate cleanser between main courses.

What followed was a meaty performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Heard in the earlier of the composer's two versions — a score with more sharply etched timbres and, in the last movement particularly, a kind of angularity that points up its rhythmic energy — the work made for a fine season finale.

There were a few evident disadvantages in the relative smallness of the string sections: A characteristic rhythmic figure in  the first movement lost definition almost every time it was passed to the strings. The second-movement "Romanza" featured a characterless violin solo and a thankfully warmer oboe-cello duet.

The best-balanced movement was the Scherzo, where the predominance of wind-band evocations suited the music perfectly. The suspenseful transition to the finale was mesmerizing and precisely governed. Though some lack of strength in the strings — a matter of numbers, not of participant vigor — continued to tilt the balance toward the winds, the stepped-up tempo at the start of the coda showed those sections, particularly the cellos, to be capable of flexing coordinated muscles.

A sturdily performed, abundantly satisfying concert over all — even if I still have a hard time getting that conductor caricature out of my head.