Saturday, October 29, 2016

Raymond Leppard returns to the podium to conduct a regular-season ISO concert

Apart from an appearance a year-and-a-half ago, Raymond Leppard is rarely evident leading the Indianapolis
Symphony Orchestra in the regular season. Now holding the title of conductor laureate, Leppard is fondly remembered by many for his 14 seasons as the ISO's music director.

He was a fixture in a special concert that he created to give the orchestra a respite from about two dozen "Yuletide Celebration" concerts each December, but he decided the 2015 concert in that annual series would be the last and gave it decent burial

This time around in front of the orchestra he led between 1987 and 2001, "one is the loneliest number," as the old Three Dog Night hit has it. Friday's concert featuring Leppard and guest soprano Rachele Gilmore was a one-off. There is no repeat performance today — rare on the Classical Series season schedule.

Though I resist thinking of these blog posts as part of the ISO's marketing efforts, I'm sorry that what follows isn't in some small way a consumer advisory. The soprano is well worth hearing, and Leppard displayed some of his old magic in repertoire he loves dearly. If you didn't catch it Friday, you won't.

The first half was all-Mozart. The first few measures of the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture were at stage-whisper level, a very effective reminder of the piece's theatrical purpose. The line of both themes was kept smooth, with enlivening accents. A major crescendo leading to the climax was not just an episode of excitement, but seemed to justify and lift to a higher level everything that followed. The effect reminded me of something concertmaster Zach DePue once told me about working under Leppard: that by the end of each concert everything the musicians were asked to do made sense and revealed just how and why they had carried out Leppard's intentions.

The most accomplished symphony Mozart wrote in his teens (OK, the "little G minor" [No. 25] is a contender as well) followed. Detailed and well-shaped, the outer movements were zesty and vivid without any signs of being overstressed. The Andante unfolded like a dream, which doesn't mean it was blurry or unfocused. The vigorous minuet blended the qualities of naivete and nascent bravado convincingly. You can think of this movement as Cherubino music — prophetic of the lovelorn youth about to be packed off to the army in "The Marriage of Figaro." That kind of charm undercut by anxiety came through in this performance.

Rachele Gilmore, soprano, sang Dupard and Mozart with the ISO.
His mobility severely compromised by age, Leppard had to be led on and offstage at the start of each half. He remained seated at the podium between selections. Gesturing toward the wings, the conductor welcomed Gilmore to the stage for "Exsultate, jubilate," a motet for soprano and orchestra that requires clarity, accuracy, coloratura gifts and a devout expression of praise throughout.

This soloist had those qualities, sporting a bright, polished tone, with a special gleam and power kept in reserve to use as needed. The voice lost its luster down low somewhat, but those passages were few. In the aria preceding the brilliant "Alleluia" that ends the piece, Gilmore gave particular breadth and warmth to the caressing phrases (sung in Latin, of course) "You console the griefs which make the heart sigh."

She returned in the concert's second half for three songs by Henri Duparc, one of the major composers of the French art song. The melodie genre tends to carry the French love for a declamatory style in musical texts; you get the feeling no tune would satisfy a French composer if it did not mainly draw attention to a song's words. Both accompaniment and the voice itself carry out such duties in "L'invitation au voyage," "Au Pays ou se fait la guerre," and "Phydilé." Gilmore's voice floated with a focus on meaning over the pastel accompaniments, keenly joined in Leppard's hands to her singing.

The full orchestra assembled for the program finale. "Cockaigne Overture," Edward Elgar's affectionate portrait of London at its cheeriest and most life-affirming, wrapped things up splendidly.  All the programmatic episodes were robustly characterized, with an especially well-pronounced blaze of glory in the military-band evocations. The rush to the final double bar displayed the deceptively offhand but scrupulous mastery Leppard typically brought to ISO performances during his heyday here.