Sunday, May 21, 2017

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra ends 2016-17 season displaying its versatility

Growth in an artistic organization branches out into so many areas, but one of the most important measures is how much artistic range it can take in successfully.
Alexander Kerr, Mozart soloist

Founded in 1984, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra  continues to demonstrate its adeptness for this kind of growth. Through smart programming capable of engaging audience interest and challenging the musicians at the same time, Matthew Kraemer has shone a light on the path forward for the almost 34-year-old orchestra after just two seasons as the ICO's third music director.

At Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts Saturday evening, the ICO's season finale encompassed two works from the mainstream and a couple of short suites in which modern composers repurposed old material through their personal idioms. The range of sonority and textural complexity alone illustrated the ensemble's growth. The payoff for the audience was rich, not only because of how the program fit together but also by virtue of how well it was brought off.

The rapport with guest soloists is among the measures of an orchestra's maturity. In this concert, that feeling was solid in Alexander Kerr's performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, under Kraemer's astute guidance. The feeling of phrases talking to one another was captivating in the opening Allegro — a feature just as evident in the accompaniment as in the solo. The Adagio presents one of the most sublime of Mozart's slow melodies; it showcased Kerr's sterling-silver tone and his well-shaped phrasing — qualities on display regularly in Dallas, where he is concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He is also professor of violin at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

The Rondo: Allegro finale featured subtle changes from the soloist at each return of the main theme, including left-hand pizzicato the last time — not a technique Mozart knew, but quite fitting, given the ornamental freedom that pianists apply to repetitions when they play Mozart. The performance was ingratiating and dispatched with flair and affection for the music that stopped well short of sounding too offhand.

Matthew Kraemer again displayed his affinity for good programming.
The other major work provided a stunning conclusion, with the orchestra at its largest of the evening. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn, op. 56a, which has been called a testing ground for this careful composer's First Symphony, displays the mastery of variation form so familiar in Brahms' music.

There were wonderful balances evident throughout — qualities that had been thoroughly exercised in those short suites (one by Benjamin Britten, the other by Thomas Ades). Winds and strings seemed to revel collegially in the Schrott's fine acoustics, but such equipoise doesn't happen by itself: Kraemer was conscientiously drawing it out of his musicians.

Earlier, Anne Reynolds had been acknowledged upon her retirement after 32 years as principal flute. The lovely "grazioso" variation, the composition's next to last before its noble finale, amounted to a farewell showcase for her warm, natural tone and the personality she has always brought to her work in chamber music and the ICO alike.

Britten's Suite on English Folksongs ("A Time There Was...") opened the concert. Its high opus number indicates the confident personal spin the 20th-century composer applied as an acknowledged master to his homeland's folk music — a more intricate, knotty and irreverent approach than Ralph Vaughan Williams, the pioneer in symphonic treatments of English folk songs. The five short movements projected the individual character of each song, keeping rhythmic and melodic contours clear while applying bracing harmonies and colors to the material. Splendid solo work came from harpist Wendy Muston in "The Bitter Withy" and English-horn player Pamela Ajango in "Lord Melbourne."

Thomas Ades is one of the most respected of Britten's successors among British composers. His music tends to take an eccentric approach to tone color, involving unusual combinations and a kind of pointillistic surface that brings gestural nimbleness to the fore. In "Three Studies from Couperin," Ades presents three 21st-century rethinkings of harpsichord music by the French baroque composer Francois Couperin.

The violas and cellos are divided, and there are such arresting sonorities as the bass flute, mallet percussion, and the unconventional application of muted solo trumpet to the woodwind choir. The piece looks backward in a more self-conscious manner than the Brahms that followed it on this program, but both works are fine examples of how to inherit traditional artistic values and make fresh personal use of them. Getting things right in the Ades, which the ICO appeared to do, helped the expanded ensemble sound brilliant in the Brahms Haydn Variations.


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