Saturday, January 21, 2017

A program of considerable length and a wide range of expression: ISO plays Mahler and Vivaldi//Richter

One of Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessors as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had a low opinion of Gustav Mahler's music.

I remember the outspoken Raymond Leppard, if he was accurately quoted in the interview I read in the late 1980s, saying that Mahler's bipolar mood swings (not a phrase Leppard used) were a bar to engagement with the Austrian composer's expansive scores. The mood swings in "Das Lied von der Erde" are pretty wide, but Leppard made an exception of this symphonic song cycle. The last time the ISO played the work before this weekend, Leppard was on the podium, the current program book reminds us.

Almost 23 years later, Urbanski is using "The Song of the Earth" to close out the ISO's two-week Music of the Earth Festival. Two more ISO performances of the work, along with Max Richter's "The Four Seasons Recomposed," remain — at 7 tonight in Hilbert Circle Theatre and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Even Mahler-lovers can probably concede that the composer seems in particularly conscientious control of his muse in writing this late work — regarded conventionally as Mahler's walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is a consistency that unifies the piece, despite its wide palette of timbres and a harmonic range that both grates and soothes, with Orientalisms sensitively applied.

Tenor Paul Groves displayed a virile, centered tone
Taking seven poems from "The Chinese Flute," Hans Bethge's German translation of classical Chinese poetry, the composer wrote six movements that both broaden and deepen the emotional scope of Bethge's adaptations.

Urbanski indicated his sympathy by the mastery he imparted to the large orchestra in the complex first song. "The Drinking
Song of Earth's Sorrow"  burst out of the gate and set up an introduction that tenor Paul Groves was able to match from the first, with a phrase marked "Mit voller Kraft" (with full strength). He proved just as capable of vivid characterization in the third movement ("Youth") and in the mischievous zestfulness of the fifth ("The Drunkard in Spring").

A tenor soloist in this piece has often to cut through the orchestration, and Groves was capable of that, while keeping his attractive instrument free of strain or any sign of fraying. His sound was buoyant and life-affirming.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, in alternation with Groves, is much less required to display sheer power. Yet the lower female voice needs to have considerable heft in this work, in part not to set up some false masculine-feminine imbalance of strength. Mahler was more interested in this miscellany of poems being able to express a unified sensibility, combining close observation of the natural and human environment with an individualized poignancy.

She got the most attractive support from the orchestra in exhibiting her sensuous yet restrained tone in the fourth movement,"Beauty."  Two poems are combined in the finale, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell), which features the score's most haunting music, separated by an orchestral interlude. Cooke rendered the songs with an emotional steadiness that simultaneously suggested the music's regretful feeling of isolation and its appetite for life, even in decline. Of the several opportunities for lovely instrumental solos, oboist Jennifer Christen and cellist Austin Huntington were particularly impressive.

A Vivaldi do-over: Alexi Kenney is a 22-year-old violinist from California.
Before intermission, Urbanski's role was just to introduce "The Four Seasons Recomposed," by the 50-year-old German-British composer Max Richter. Urbanski stressed his supposition that Richter was moved to treat the 18th-century masterpiece to an updating.  At play was his high regard for the original coupled with the feeling that it has become too well-known today and in need of a makeover.

With violin soloist Alexi Kenney leading a reduced orchestra, chiefly strings, this reconception is spread over a 45-minute span. The score manipulates tunes and phrases from Antonio Vivaldi's famous concerto set. Sometimes the retrospective game-playing has a repetitive intensity that palls after a short while. Sometimes the greatest intensity is abruptly broken off, indicating to me that Richter drew inspiration from the modernist tendency to downplay emotional climaxes. In this piece, such climaxes were often abruptly undercut, which had the shocking effect of Lucy snatching away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it. Nonetheless, Kenney's violin-playing was a marvel of well-deployed energy and full-throated lyricism.

In sum, while I too have heard Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" quite a lot and have to guard against letting it pass over me with insufficient attention, I found "The Four Seasons Recomposed" a lengthy tease, often in terms borrowed from Philip Glass, and  frankly tedious. Vigorous and dreamy by turns, it seemed resourceful and heartfelt, but simply went on too long.