Saturday, January 28, 2017

All-Russian ISO program puts concertmaster Zach De Pue in the spotlight as soloist

In life and death alike, Dmitri Shostakovich has been a beacon of resistance and freedom in the eyes of the West. His Time magazine cover during World War II in a fireman's helmet, pitching in to help the Motherland stem the German invasion, is iconic. But his more consistent enemy was his own government, and his heroic stature endures because of what his music seems to represent.

Crucially to our insecure high culture, Shostakovich takes an honored place today as a symbol of the arts' declaration of independence from state control and repression. And there's been an added element  in the 21st century: Shostakovich in performance is a viscerally exciting and sometimes haunting argument for the relevance of classical music to our time. The composer's nemesis, Josef Stalin, may be — like Dickens' Jacob Marley — dead as a door nail. But his ghost, again like Marley's, will walk the Earth as long as there are ruthless autocrats eager to wear his mantle.

Long ago, Philip Roth scrutinized the literary work of his contemporaries behind the Iron Curtain, and made this comparison of art's relative importance: Over here, anything goes and nothing matters; there, nothing goes and everything matters. Even when he's not at his best, the aura around Shostakovich is that everything matters.

Accordingly, a work like the first Violin Concerto has more than its artistic claims to keep it in the repertoire. Its genesis a few short years after that Time magazine cover in the post-war Soviet Union, and the delay of its premiere until after Stalin's death, speak to the anxiety that shadowed the composer throughout his career.  Within its unconventional four-movement structure,  indications abound of its expressive and technical boldness and avoidance of the approved "Socialist Realism" aesthetic.

Zach De Pue has a thing for the Shostakovich First, going back 25 years.
The A minor violin concerto places a staggering variety of demands on the soloist. Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, most of them were met by Zach De Pue and his colleagues in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Roberto Abbado. The work was launched in a generous spirit, with the kind of patience required to lay out all that deep reflection in a poised manner. The "Nocturne," as the composer titled the first movement, displayed the ISO concertmaster's  magisterial phrasing and warm tone at its fullest.

The chockablock Scherzo that followed started out excellent, its vigorous contrasts glowingly characterized by orchestra and soloist alike. Well into it, unfortunately, De Pue suddenly became discombobulated, paused briefly, and moved close to the conductor's stand to steal a reassuring peek at the map. He soon righted himself and the movement proceeded to the end confidently. (De Pue's score was on a music stand in front of him the whole time, but I never saw a single page turn. I'm assuming it was there as a kind of security blanket, because obviously he knows the piece cold.)

The third-movement Passacaglia is one of Shostakovich's greatest, a triumph of formal and expressive mastery. Concertos are essentially partnerships with hints, more or less pronounced, of competition.  In slow movements, composers take the common option of having the orchestra introduce the soloist, and everything they do after his/her entrance is supportive. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto is a case in point. In the Shostakovich A minor, the orchestra doesn't introduce, but sets the agenda for the third movement, and the question arises: What's the soloist going to make of this?

The answer comes quickly in the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, where there's oppositional dialogue between soloist and orchestra that ends on the pianist's terms. But a delay in one concerto partner's response to the other always grabs the attention. The dynamic is reversed in the slow movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. There the soloist lays out a complete tune in leisurely fashion. putting his/her stamp on it. When the flute, then other solo woodwinds, finally enter, the effect is magical. After the orchestra shows that it has "earned" the partnership, the English horn gets a crack at the tune near the end. The movement's design never fails to beguile.

Roberto Abbado's grip on "The Firebird" was sustaining.
In the Russian masterpiece under review here, the soloist's answer in the slow movement is heart-rending. As many times as you hear the music, it seems the tension is always there before the violinist modestly makes lyrical suggestions around the passacaglia theme first outlined by horns and turned into a chorale by woodwinds. As the movement progresses, the somewhat diffident solo music turns triumphant, but always in a spirit of collaboration.

This was beautifully handled Friday night. I hear the soloist as conveying a message pertinent not merely to standing up against tyranny, but also for citizens in a democratic republic (for as long as we have it). It  says: "I have a right to be here, seeing things in my own way, but I also acknowledge and value my participation in the larger community, and expect that community will reciprocate, honoring my integrity. And just look at what we can accomplish!"

The individualistic strain comes to the fore untethered in the five-minute solo cadenza, which De Pue brought off superbly. Then, with scarcely a break, the soloist is sentenced to hard labor in the finale. De Pue sounded more than willing to shoulder any burden and exhibit his control of it. Despite some variation in pinpoint coordination, the movement was unstinting in its brilliance and power.

This weekend's concerts open with the Prelude to Mussorgsky's opera "Khovanshchina," orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov
and carrying the title "Dawn on the Moskva River." Friday's performance featured fine oboe and clarinet solos piercing gently the morning mists rising over water. The entrance of the horns was magical, recalling a passage (admittedly a little purple) in the Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin's memoir that I've always admired: "In Russia the voice of love is raised at dawn, and rings in the shadowy darkness....the deep tones of a bell chime forth and re-echo the song. The shadows quiver, and the whisper of a divine annunciation seems to steal into the very essence of one's being." Abbado and the ISO conjured up that evanescent atmosphere.

Making up the program's substantial second half is the complete "Firebird" ballet score of Igor Stravinsky.  Hearing this exuberantly pictorial and dramatic music in something other than abridged suite form makes clear how well the first of Stravinsky's three great ballets fits in with the others: "Petrouchka" and "The Rite of Spring."  There's so much of a nearly unquenchable modernist aesthetic waiting to burst out in the complete score that "The Firebird" seems almost as trail-blazing as the notorious "Rite."

Abbado and the ISO did wonders with the work. Particularly enjoyable was the panache of the Firebird's initial appearance right through her capture by Prince Ivan and her pleading with him for release. The dramatic push-pull of later episodes was also colorfully set forth, with lots of sparkling solos. The famous "infernal dance" of the evil king Kastchei's subjects is more impressive when set in the context of the monster's subsequent awakening and swift demise.

That makes the general rejoicing, which follows the "infernal dance" so abruptly in the suite, particularly grand and well-merited. In Friday's performance, the mood was established with calm mastery by Robert Danforth's horn solo. The famous melody then overtook the whole ensemble, leading to those final measures with seven loud brass chords against full orchestra that only need to be heard once to be remembered forever.