Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sea legs: Jun Märkl again works his magic with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Over the years, several international conductors have made comparisons of American to European orchestras that speak well of
Jun Märkl got the rare tribute of shuffling feet and a solo bow from the ISO.
ours. They credit American orchestras with being especially flexible, able to turn the straw of sometimes scanty rehearsal time into concert gold because of their skill in adjusting quickly and well.

I've always felt the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra fit into this positive stereotype well, but this season the ISO has ratcheted up the ability to a high level. Once again Friday night, the musicians seemed to be inspired as well as dutiful in accommodating a guest conductor. Of course, this one — Jun Märkl — has the known quality of being a musicians' favorite, and credible rumors have it that he's been on the short list for music director a couple of times.

So when the Japanese-German maestro came back to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium to conduct a sea-themed program, the success was almost predictable. Even so, Friday's concert was a confirmation of what seems to be the stepped-up responsiveness of the ISO to guest conductors. The orchestra was at the top of its bent in delivering a program of Elgar, Britten, Ravel, and Debussy to a Classical Series audience. There's a repeat Sunday afternoon in Carmel, as the Palladium schedule will be graced by the ISO once again.

The "sea-girt isle" (Shakespeare's phrase) has an existential connection to saltwater; its neighbor across a linking body of water, a proud nation that understandably calls the English Channel something different ("La Manche"), less so. But musical evocations of the sea have been vivid and expert in the classical music of both France and England.

This weekend's concerts open with Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes," op. 33a, by Benjamin Britten. Having just heard this music at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's production of the opera, I found hearing this music out of context oddly liberating. At the same time, the four contrasting pieces — "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," "Moonlight," and "Storm" — reinforce the dramatic and psychological impact of the opera while having plenty to say as far as picturesqueness is concerned.

Friday's reading of Four Sea Interludes was three-dimensional, unafraid of highlighting contrasts, such as the luminous strings against plangent brass in "Dawn." The bell-like resonance of "Sunday Morning" was full-bodied, and "Moonlight" had the flickering, foreboding quality it represents in the opera. The galvanic energy of "Storm" confirmed the special rapport between this conductor and this orchestra. You got the sense the ISO was going all-out, but without wearing itself to a frazzle.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston is making her ISO debut this weekend, performing the five songs that Edward Elgar called "Sea Pictures." It was a bit surprising to learn from the program book that this was the orchestra's first time with the piece, since for 14 seasons the ISO was under the direction of the Elgar-loving Raymond Leppard. As  heard Friday, Johnston sounded close to the true contralto most fitting for "Sea Pictures," though the solo part also requires going with strength above the staff briefly.

Lyricism in all registers must be maintained, and Johnston provided that attractively. Her diction appeared to be excellent, but full texts in the program would have been helpful, given the work's unfamiliarity. The orchestral accompaniment had suppleness and a nice range of muted color.

After intermission, Maurice Ravel's orchestration of "Une barque sur l'ocean," from his solo piano suite "Miroirs," served as a palate cleanser, giving further indication of Märkl's unobtrusive yet nonetheless emphatic way of representing the swelling and subsiding rhythms characteristic of sea travel under sail.

It made for a fine prelude to "La Mer," the repertoire's crowning achievement for orchestra in rendering the unconquerable mystery and allure of the ocean. Mankind can spoil it, unfortunately, but never rule it. Claude Debussy's three movements imply the menacing aspect of the sea without overstating it. The primary mood is positive, celebratory, and sensitive to detail — from tidal swells to needlepoint splashes of spray.

Though the majestic sweep of the music came fully into view, this performance was notable for clarity as well: The two harps provided a wealth of evident detail, as did the score's manifold inflections of percussion. Solo winds were on the qui vive, and principals Zach De Pue (violin) and Conrad Jones (trumpet) sparkled in their brief showcases. After the dialogue of the wind and the sea (Debussy's title for the finale) diminished to stage whispers for the last time, the final full-orchestra roar inundated the hall like a tsunami — but the kind that's a pleasure to endure, survive, and be grateful for.