Saturday, February 18, 2017

An elder statesman among conductors works wonders with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Realizing that I was out of town when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last played Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica"), I unfortunately can't comment on how different Friday night's performance under the baton of Edo de Waart was
Edo de Waart, this weekend's guest conductor.
compared to Mario Venzago's in 2014.

But it was soon evident as the first movement got under way at Hilbert Circle Theatre that de Waart was drawing something of significant contrast to the Beethoven styles of Krzysztof Urbanski,  Venzago, or Raymond Leppard — the current ISO music director and his two immediate predecessors.

I've never heard the ISO sound quite like this in core classical repertoire, and it's almost frustrating to try pinpointing the differences, which were all to the good. There was a glow and warmth to the first movement that avoided overheating. The sound was full and commanding, without excessive upholstery. In "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg complains of conductors "whose attitude of reverence and awe before A Great Classic leads them into 'monumental' tempi" that seem to justify early critical carping that this trailblazing symphony was inordinately lengthy, even unendurable.

While grandeur was never far from the vision de Waart imparted to the ISO, the performance never took on any rigidity of the kind summed up in Steinberg's capitalized phrase "A Great Classic."  This was a supple interpretation whose dynamics and tempos seemed to grow from within.

The structure of each movement — particularly the first and the fourth — was delineated without any evidence of micromanaging. I think Beethoven meant for his audience to see both the forest and the trees. The "greatly compressed motif cells" (Maynard Solomon's phrase) in the opening movement, for example, were given a clarity that was nevertheless nestled in the fabric of the whole. The tidiest movement, the Scherzo, had the requisite panache, including the three-horn magnificence of the Trio section. The "funeral march" second movement sounded properly like the best thing of its kind ever created, music that Richard Wagner sought in vain to equal in his heroic funeral music for Siegfried.                 

The finale was not taken on the power trip some performances can't resist. It's obvious Beethoven is treating his much-loved theme to a kind of apotheosis, but why clamber up Parnassus heedless of the terrain's special beauties? De Waart never let the cumulative insistence of the material take over. He invited the orchestra to bask in the spectrum of Beethoven's variation treatment, and it did — from march to caprice to "Hungarian" dance to the flaming coda.

The overall progressive development of the ISO is not to be slighted, even though the vacancy issue must continue to be addressed. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the contributions of the three music directors already mentioned, what a guest conductor of de Waart's stature can lend to the ensemble speaks not only to his gifts but also to the flexibility any major orchestra needs to display. When the ability to adapt in repertoire the players know thoroughly is exercised this well, the result encourages enthusiastic patronage and brightens the future.

De Waart opens this weekend's programs (the series concludes at the Palladium Sunday) with the significant but rarely heard "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" by Igor Stravinsky. Twenty-some musicians are required for the 1920 work, heard here in its 1947 revision. Friday's performance sparkled, but showed the need for a little more rehearsal. At issue is not how well the performance hung together; it did that, but there's a host of challenges in blending so much instrumental diversity in unconventional ways.

Saxophone virtuoso Timothy McAllister
The work's peculiar title indicates the composer's interest in elaborating on the roots of the word "symphony": a sounding together. Declaring himself — in an annoying watchword of modernism — uninterested in expressing emotion, Stravinsky still managed to come up with a chastely moving tribute to Claude Debussy, as was commissioned from him. But the main focus is on a constant shifting of ensemble colors across a range of short themes that owe much, including their Russian character, to "The Soldier's Tale," "The Wedding" and even "The Rite of Spring."

Though Stravinsky disdained the organ ("The monster never breathes!" he once said), I often think that this work should come across as if one instrument were parading all these different sounds in front of us, like a finely registered organ. Friday's performance was fairly shipshape, but the score's challenges are huge. To give just one example, in one of the passages just after another repetition of the work's signature herald-like motif, three flutes have a showcase marked mezzo forte ("medium loud"), joined near the end of the seventh measure by a large proportion of the band playing piano ("soft"). If the large group does not play softly, it of course will tend to obscure the flutes. Not having a phonographic memory, I won't try to assert how close Friday's performance came to Stravinsky's demand here, but I had the sense that overall blend and balance were not all they could have been; maybe just two more concert performances will meet every requirement.

The novelty in this weekend's program is John Adams' Saxophone Concerto. To play the solo part, the ISO enjoyed the participation of the alto saxophonist who inspired the composer to create the piece, Timothy McAllister.  The soloist's playing was equal to the unrelenting nature of Adams' writing — to its bursts of lyricism and controlled feverishness alike. His tone remained pristine and properly centered throughout. The orchestra supports him after the Adams manner of repetitive elements that change direction much more freely than the minimalism with which the composer was associated long ago.

The first movement creates the illusion of rising continually, yet somehow remains grounded, like a tethered hot-air balloon.
The soloist is set against an instrumental texture that owes something to a style of Weather Report, and indeed that seminal jazz-fusion group's saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, was an acknowledged influence on the composer. The surprising breadth of Shorter's phrasing — his way of leaving a notion incomplete in one place only to answer it satisfactorily later — was represented  excitingly in the solo part.

There are moments of relaxation in the course of two long movements. The finale, with its spiky energy from soloist and orchestra alike, drew more on early bebop pioneers, specifically Charlie Parker. This was a style in which rests and abrupt breaks in the line take on structural importance. After meeting so many requirements so well, McAllister still seemed to have fresh resources to bring to bear on the second movement's climax. I'd love to hear this piece again before too long.