Saturday, June 4, 2016

ISO's Classical Season concludes with a Slavic emphasis, buoyed by an American Chopin specialist

Right on the heels of the announcement that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be one of four American orchestras on the 2018 schedule of a new festival in Washington, D.C., come this weekend's final subscription series concerts here.

In both cases, there is a prominent focus on music from music director Krzysztof Urbanski's Polish homeland. Today and Sunday, the ISO will repeat the program I heard Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, with works by Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski occupying the first half. (Tomorrow's concert will be at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.)

The Polish  theme will be reinforced on the national stage two years from now, when Urbanski will conduct the ISO, vocal soloists and two Indianapolis choirs in a Kennedy Center concert as part of SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. That program will consist of music by Witold Lutoslawski  and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Urbanski thus continues his long-stated mission of acquainting ISO audiences with music by his fellow Poles. Chopin, of course, always honored his homeland in trailblazing works for piano during his short life, most of which was spent in Paris. His "Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante," op. 22, leads off this weekend's concerts.

Garrick Ohlsson soloed in works by Chopin and Szymanowski.
An affinity for Chopin, a core part of many pianists' repertoires, has been particularly strong in the career of Garrick Ohlsson, who is making his third appearance here this season. Ohlsson's international career was launched in 1970 with his first-place finish in the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

Further indication that he is not resting on those laurels came Friday with his playing of this two-part piece. Its flowing prelude for unaccompanied piano is followed by one of many Chopin-penned examples of the majestic national dance form, the polonaise, the orchestra filling a subordinate role. Ohlsson's mastery was further confirmed in his encore, Nocturne in F-sharp major, op. 15, no. 2. The guest artist's control of tone, with a wonderful sense of color joined to rhythmic subtlety, amounted to a peek inside a jewel box of enchantment.

The coordination of piano and orchestra, which is so much a matter in Chopin's op. 22 of the orchestra's playing valet to the piano, becomes a much more balanced partnership in Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra (Symphonie Concertante). Straddling the boundary between romanticism and modernism with an idiosyncratic fervor informed by Polish nationalism, the composer achieves a bristling unity of forces here.

There is a startling boldness to the massing of forces, a density in the writing that forces the busy piano soloist often to accept a role as not-quite-first-among-equals. Ohlsson was up to the challenge, clearly relishing that intensity of the partnership. He frequently looked straight ahead to pick up visual cues from the violas. He was all about the glory of collaboration.

Urbanski was just as conscientious making sure tricky points of coordination were well synchronized.  There were some brief, flavorful solos in the course of the three movements; it was particularly gratifying to hear Rebecca Price Arrensen, longtime assistant principal, impart warmth and expressive weight to the flute solos at the beginning and end of the second movement.

After intermission came a much more familiar Fourth Symphony: Tchaikovsky's in F minor. Its wealth of melody and often splashy sonorities — especially the cymbal-accented whirlwind of the finale — can sometimes hide what a formally satisfying work this is. Its glowering "fate" motive is distributed across the symphony's breadth in a startling, yet judicious, way. Friday's performance threw the resumption of the first movement's main material into appropriately abrupt contrast.

The slow sections of the first movement were effectively dialed back. Dynamics, as in opening string figures, were refined downward to a stage whisper. In the second movement, it became clear to me why Urbanski had made the choice to switch the normal violin seating: The seconds were to his immediate left, the firsts behind them. In one episode, this gave a slightly veiled quality to the first-violin melody against the pizzicato backdrop of the other strings and tendrils of rising woodwinds. Very effective, as it demonstrated that Tchaikovsky not only knew how to create fine melodies, but also how to set them to advantage.

The Scherzo was taken a slightly slower tempo than usual, which seemed quite sensible. It's important to remember that Tchaikovsky didn't want to invariably project his febrile temperament. As he wrote in notes to the finale, it's important to try to find happiness. So the Scherzo, when not rushed, is actually a plateau of happiness that it's worth an orchestra's effort to settle upon. So it was here. And you knew the excitement was soon going to raise the hairs on the back of your neck when you saw the string players pick up their bows after all that third-movement plucking before their last pizzicato turn: The finale was launched attacca, and its momentum — while checked briefly as necessary from time to time — never faltered. There turned out to be energy reserves to be tapped in the final measures, and Urbanski opened the spigots.

An old documentary film about rock 'n' roll (available on YouTube) opens with a clip from "Ozzie and Harriet," the 1950s sitcom of sainted memory. Ricky Nelson, the younger "rocking" son, has "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" cranked up on his record player; downstairs, older brother David is annoyed that his record of choice on the family console is being drowned out. A volume-knob skirmish ensues.

And what work represents "classical" resistance to the upstart sound?  Nothing other than the "Allegro con fuoco" finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

Long ago, some TV person made an impressive choice of a piece for a classically minded big brother to do fraternal battle with. It is likewise an unanswerable splash of a season-closer for the ISO this weekend.

Roll over, Elvis, tell Big Mama Thornton the news!