Saturday, February 4, 2017

John Nelson, the ISO's fourth music director, returns to the Circle Theatre with a well-designed program

John Nelson, precise in gesture conducting batonless, returns as guest conductor.
At 75, John Nelson has moved into the realm of seasoned maestro — thirty years after he ended a 10-season tenure at the helm of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

This accumulated wisdom showed consistently in the first of two full-length concerts he is conducting this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre. It seemed a little odd that the  on-screen program note before the concert — a recent feature of the ISO's Classical Series — described him as "a talented conductor." Faint praise, it seems to me. Usually you call attention to a musician's talent at the start of his career. Nelson brings so much more to the podium at this point.

This was a tidy program, with the fittingness of a well-designed bouquet: Three composers, born within three years of each other in the 1870s, each with a quite distinct voice, were represented by major works.

Two contrasting pieces by Maurice Ravel bookended Friday's concert; the program repeats at 5:30 p.m. today. For the kind of splash Nelson often liked to create during his music directorship, there was Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe, to conclude. The popular extract is from a ballet whose lush scenario stimulated the French composer's romantic afllatus. At the start, there was the chaste tribute to his French forebears, with the lively yet restrained suite called Le Tombeau de Couperin.

It was hard not to be reminded of the orchestra's playing of the complete ballet as choreographed by David Hochoy with Dance Kaleidoscope in June 2014. Krzysztof Urbanski, Nelson's successor three places down the line, conducted at Clowes Hall. It was one of the great artistic collaborations here in the 21st century so far. Images from that show popped into my head as I listened Friday night.

After the wonderful depiction of dawn that opens the work, this performance represented perfectly the meeting of the title characters. The love theme was given a nice weight at each appearance. The music evoking the woodland god Pan floated aptly, topped by Karen Moratz's flute solo. Moratz sounded like the ideal Ravel flutist, with her cool, authoritative tone and nimble articulation. Brief solos by concertmaster Zach De Pue could hardly have suggested the title couple's ardor more brightly or succinctly.

Some of the rivalry and contentiousness of the full ballet is necessarily eliminated in the suite. DK memories from 2014 quickly flashed into my mental view just before the suite moved rapturously into the celebration of the Bacchantes. With its animating flashes of percussion, this vigorous dance sweeps all before it in a mood of sensuous abandon that races headlong up through the final measure. All that was exuberantly in place Friday night.

In the more restrained Tombeau, the flow and surge in the Prelude were admirable. Dynamics seemed scrupulously adhered to. The rhythmically sprightly Forlane shone, with finely regulated accents; the ending was superb.  The final two movements likewise bore the mark of good communication between podium and players. Menuet was tenderly phrased, and the concluding Rigaudon shimmered with controlled brashness, crowned by fine wind playing.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, who briefly studied with Ravel, achieved one of his most probing and well-constructed evocations of old English music in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. For double string orchestra plus string quartet, the piece manages to be as colorful as Ravel, but on its own terms. Textural variety is immense, all of it nicely set forth in this performance. Nelson conveyed to the ISO strings an evident concern for detail. The effect was both exultant and reflective.

During his last season as music director, I remember being impressed by Nelson's depth of commitment to accompanying concerto soloists (apart from one cavil I had about a Mozart performance). It was no accident that the 1987 ISO East Coast tour included guest appearances by flutist Paula Robison (Takemitsu) and pianist Zoltan Kocsis (Bartok) in the same Carnegie Hall program. Nelson likes collaboration, and that was evident again Friday in how he and Stephen Hough worked together in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The Rhapsody holds up upon repeated hearings; the orchestration is more imaginative than in much of large-scale Rachmaninoff, and the resourcefulness of variation form never fails to enthrall. It's difficult to identify all the excellences in this performance. I liked the soloist's approach to the more relaxed variations, not just the dreamy tune of No. 18.  The martial variations (counting the one in triple time) crackled with energy. The mysterious ones stalked the theme broadly and glumly. The 24th variation moved toward its peroration on the Dies Irae theme with overwhelming effect.

Called back for an encore following this peerless collaboration, Hough offered his arrangement of the folk-pop favorite "Moscow Nights," decorated with brief quotations from the opening of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. A popular ISO guest artist over the years, the pianist surely is building upon that reputation with this engagement.