Saturday, October 8, 2016

All-Prokofiev program highlights interpretive and technical brilliance of guest soloist Hilary Hahn

Not many composers are considered able to hold enough interest to merit a symphony program of their music only, without the flavoring or contrast another composer might provide.

Hilary Hahn has figured in some high-profile ISO concerts.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's first classical weekend featured only Beethoven, a choice quite common when one-composer concerts are designed. This weekend's choice — music by Sergei Prokofiev — is more unconventional. Critics and music-lovers generally may have personal limits on how small a circle of composers is worthy for this kind of program.

Prokofiev makes it, in my opinion, for his amazing fecundity, his tunefulness, the sprightliness of his rhythms, his adept orchestration and his free and unexpected movement among tonalities. A totally self-assured composer, he was also a somewhat arrogant, unsympathetic man, of which more later. My breadth of interest is pretty wide on the topic of one-composer programs, but it's more a question of marketing. I would draw the line at some who are appealing in certain works but somehow a little too narrow in their expressive "signature" and technical variety, such as Varese or Sibelius.

The first advantage of this one-composer program to attract people is the presence of Hilary Hahn as a dazzlingly persuasive advocate for Prokofiev's first violin concerto (D major, op. 19). On Friday night, this major artist made her first return trip to the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage since she played the opening gala concert of the 2013-14 season; her ISO appearance before that, in 2009, had her premiering Jennifer Higdon's violin concerto, which went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Those high-profile engagements perhaps explained the hefty attendance Friday night and the enthusiasm of the audience, in which youth were prominent. Dazzling in a floor-length gown with a gold paisley pattern, Hahn rewarded the post-concerto ovation with the gigue from Bach's E major partita.

As for Prokofiev, she hit with absolute assurance the contrast between the "dreaming" and "narrative" portions of the first movement, ascending sweetly into the empyrean in the final pages.

The way she dug into the Scherzo, particularly fulfilling the directive to strongly accent repeated staccato figures in the lower register, set the pulse pounding. The stately progress into the fanciful rhetoric in the latter half of the finale, the kind of unhackneyed fantasyland Prokofiev commanded so well, was characterized by Hahn's glittering trills as the orchestra seemed to float the accompaniment in some of its best playing of the evening. Her supple phrasing and a tone that can be both robust and tender were evident throughout the performance.

From the same year as the D major concerto (the epochal 1917 in his homeland) came Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, his sporty evocation of the late 18th century with enough original touches that it has gone over well with modern audiences without sounding derivative. Music director Krzysztof Urbanski led a performance that gained strength and assurance as it went along: The opening gesture, recalling the "Mannheim rocket" of the early Classical period, came off with almost as much fizzle as sizzle. But the second and third movements were notable for their poised, authentically gentle quality — all the more surprising in the gavotte, which is sometimes stomped through with too much irony.

Prokofiev as a young man, about the time of the Russian Revolution
Authenticity raises difficult issues with Prokofiev, who continually flirted with parody and disingenuousness in his music. His creative art was his lifelong focus, stemming from his conservatory days as a talented wise guy. The issue becomes more serious than a matter of old gossip. Many creative artists have had unattractive personalities and been alarmingly inattentive to or dismissive of anything outside their art. On the literary side, William Faulkner in his Paris Review interview said an artist must let nothing stand in his way, and be willing to sacrifice his mother, if need be: "The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies," the novelist memorably declared, though his selection of the humane John Keats as representative of such ruthlessness was certainly odd.

Prokofiev came back in mid-career to the Soviet Union after successful sojourns in the United States and France. Perhaps he was just homesick, perhaps he found competition with fellow emigre  Igor Stravinsky insupportable. He was certainly naive as to what the Stalin regime would require of him and his fellows. He saw a couple of collaborators disappear, without evident alarm. He took up with a woman more in favor with the regime than his wife. The moral culpability that can be charged to him for his survival efforts formed the crux of the musicologist Richard Taruskin's centennial takedown  of Prokofiev in a 1991 New York Times article.

Taruskin focused his screed on "Alexander Nevsky," the 1938 film score that has endured as a tremendous concert piece. Its tale of Russian heroism clearly served Stalin's need to rally his people around a historical example of strong leadership in the face of foreign threats. Why should "Alexander Nevsky" be performed nowadays? Taruskin lamented, going on to bring in a couple of other questionable examples and asking: "The real question is, can we say no to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and yes to Prokofiev, Orff and Respighi?"

Oh dear! What to do with the ballet "Romeo and Juliet," a scintillating suite from which Urbanski conducts in this program's second half? It comes from the mid-1930s, when Stalin's stranglehold on his countrymen was undeniable. The ballet had a host of non-political (perhaps) production problems, but the fact that it arose when  Prokofiev was making his peace with the regime may cast it in the shadows.

My vote is for music to be performed if it has something to say to us still, despite any unsavory aspects of its origin. I think concertgoers should understand what they're hearing, and by "understand" I mean be aware of the music's context. Prokofiev's life, despite the distance his genius places between him and us, offers lessons in how complex it is to negotiate in the public sphere one's private interests whenever political conditions make honorable behavior difficult. How would we act if forced to make our way in a society turned evil?

So the suite from "Romeo and Juliet" deserves its claim on our attention, as Friday's performance proved. It immersed us again in Shakespeare's familiar story, while its ingenuity as music for dancers was consistently upheld. Particularly effective was "Juliet as a Young Girl," a portrait enlivened by those side-slipping key changes Prokofiev was so good at (also evident in this program's other two works)." The Death of Tybalt" can hardly fail to be a startling depiction of violence, and so it was Friday. The two final movements — the ceremonious "Juliet's Funeral" (the scene in which Juliet is assumed to be dead, but isn't really) and "Death of Juliet" — were as moving as the corresponding scenes in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. This score makes its own argument to be heard. The fact that such arguments are inevitably self-contained will always disturb some people, and we should honor the possibility that they have valid reasons to be disturbed. But let the band play on.