Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Indianapolis Symphony's music director makes his last podium appearance here until the New Year

After a tumultuous week in the larger world, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra set a pacific seal upon its 2016 classical offerings under the music director's baton with a one-off concert featuring Polish composers in the first half, an international modern masterpiece in the second.
Jan Lisiecki played Chopin's E minor concerto and banished my agitation.

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra after intermission. It may be one of the few symphonic works in the post-World War II repertoire to have earned a permanent place in the canon. Strictly speaking, it is a product of that global catastrophe, but its reputation has been made in the past 70 years, when new compositions tend to come and go.

Resourceful in its use of orchestral resources, and a largely cheerful summing-up of the composer's piquant style, the Concerto for Orchestra found a provocative interpreter in Urbanski. Untypically using the score, Urbanski had arranged the orchestra slightly differently, with the brass extended across the back of the stage just in front of the double basses.

This seemed to have the effect of distributing the music's many solo and solo-group passages to best advantage. The opening commanded the attention with its hushed sonorities, but everything that was suggested in those few measures soon burst into full flower. The intricacies were managed with cool competence.

That quality was extended in the second movement, which I've always known under the title Giuoco delle coppie (Game of Pairs). The program book had something slightly different, and the performance followed suit insofar as the spirit of play was muted. Though well played, this "game" settled into a deliberate pace as various instrument pairings were displayed under the snare drum's guidance. The wit was academically dry, and one was compelled to admire the movement's etude-like sobriety.

The Elegy that followed had the deep-delving expressive heft that seems to fit Urbanski's emotional profile. He is not incapable of finding opportunities for humor, however. The "interruption" in the fourth-movement, Interrupted Serenade, was raucous and invigorating — in perfect contrast to the dreamy serenade music.

The finale struck me in this performance more than others I remember as falling into the symphonic tradition established by Beethoven: putting most of the weight and ingenuity of a multi-movement piece toward the end. The many soloistic episodes were brought out nicely, well-balanced and illustrative of the innovation the composer had in mind in writing the first-ever concerto for modern orchestra. The fugue was robust, the blazes of fiery color well-tended, and the gallimaufry of tempos and meters well-stirred.

Before intermission, I heard only the lengthier of the two Polish works programmed by the Polish maestro.  I had been carried away by participation in the "resist Trump" rally at the Statehouse and lost track of the time. Normally, I have no trouble privileging art over politics, but these are not normal times. Still, I'm embarrassed by the unprecedented lateness of my arrival at Hilbert Circle Theatre. I had looked forward to hearing the Urbanski/ISO "Musique funebre" of Witold Lutoslawski, which I know only from a BBC Philharmonic recording conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier.

I was in my seat and mentally readjusted (for the most part) for Jan Lisiecki's solo appearance in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. The young Canadian pianist flubbed the end of his first run up the keyboard. But that mishap turned out to be inconsequential, considering the accuracy and depth of commitment evident in the rest of what he played, including the Chopin nocturne he offered as an encore.

Lisiecki has a big, well-defined sound, seemingly using less pedal than the norm, in vigorous passages. But nothing sounded parched, and the soft playing, particularly in the slow movement, was exquisite. He relishes tonal variety, and he found things in the score that allowed him, with Urbanski and the orchestra in full concord, to be amusing and lively in the finale's rondo theme and freshly high-spirited in the movement's episodes. Recalling the short-lived Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, a critic once wrote: "He played Chopin with intimacy, boldness and respect at the same time." I can't encapsulate Lisiecki's performance Saturday night any better than that. Considering how unsettled my mind was when I took my seat, what the ISO's guest  accomplished, seconded by the orchestra, was pure balm to the spirit..