Sunday, October 9, 2016

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra season-opener: Classical Vienna revisited, with a mashup appetizer

The imperial city of Vienna, reduced in the 20th century to the incubator of Nazism and now a bit player on the European stage, has its musical legacy always at hand to command respect and silence detractors.

It's where Matthew Kraemer, entering his second season as music director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, studied conducting. From its heritage, he drew the ICO's first program of the 2016-17 season, heard Saturday afternoon in Schrott Center of Butler University.

The chief examples of Viennese musical culture included were Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, op. 19, and Schubert's Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, D. 125. The key identity goes partway in explaining the resemblance of the two works. Chief is the ebullience and youthful energy evident both in the German transplant Beethoven's concerto and native son Schubert's compact, captivating exercise in symphonic form.

Christopher O'Riley was the ICO's first guest artist of the season.
The concerto had as soloist Christopher O'Riley, nationally known as host of "From the Top," a public-radio program showcasing the best young classical musicians. Notably garbed in a black frock coat, O'Riley played with a dry, yet singing tone. buoyantly supported by the orchestra. His articulation was generally fine, though some passages in the fast movements were slightly uneven, unbalanced. He took Beethoven's hard-won melodic gift seriously in the second movement. It was a sober, forthright interpretation, wanting only a certain sparkle.

The Schubert symphony is notable for its driving momentum. Even the minuet seems to be in a rush. In Sunday's performance, the variations movement (Andante) burbled along like a tributary of the Danube. Kraemer kept the outer movements'  lickety-split tempos under control, and the hard-working strings were almost always on target.

In the first movement, the transition from the Largo introduction to the Allegro vivace was uncommonly smooth. Principal oboist Leonid Sirotkin got a well-deserved solo bow for his playing in the Trio (as he had after the concerto at O'Riley's suggestion to the conductor). All the wind players did well, though the brass sounded too prominent in the vigorous tuttis.

The curtain-raiser was refreshingly off-beat: HK Gruber, a descendant of the composer of "Silent Night," wrote his "Charivari" to poke serious fun at Viennese complacency and love of Gemuetlichkeit, that comfortable, culturally validated social feeling with a tendency to avoid facing unpleasant matters.  The contemporary Austrian composer grafted a variety of tumult upon Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Perpetuum Mobhile," an 1861 polka designed to go on forever, as its name suggests.

That juggernaut quality accommodates both a witty take on Viennese pleasures as well as the proposition that all the fun may be a noisy, eventually ineffective cover for serious matters. The score passes around a wealth of material, much of it to the percussion and brass, so "'Charivari" allowed the full ICO to show off in ways that Beethoven and Schubert never dreamed of. The bursts of cacophony were cleverly threaded into Strauss' tunefulness, complete with tributes to the waltzes that constitute Strauss' entire reputation today. The high spirits were infectious, but they also begged to be viewed askance in this clever pastiche. "Charivari" made for a zestful introduction to the alt Wien of Beethoven and Schubert.