Saturday, May 6, 2017

Two ISO debut artists make strong impression in three works

Matthias Pintscher, guest conductor
In the midst of a spate of season-ending appearances by music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has brought a first-timer as guest to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium: the German-born conductor-composer Matthias Pintscher.

Pintscher has remarkable distinction in his two spheres of activity, and since 2011 he has had an American perch as a member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School. He also lives in Paris, where he directs the Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by the late Pierre Boulez.

Friday night he shared the stage with another ISO debutant(e), California-born mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, who performed the program's centerpiece, Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder."  The often somber songs were quite an apt vehicle for her mahogany-colored voice. She displayed a contralto quality in music that has enough brilliant high notes to make assignment of the role to a mezzo-soprano quite suitable.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor
The evenly powered crescendo in the last two lines of "Stehe still!," the second song — "We see Eternity in Nature, / The search for answers is fulfilled" — had overwhelming effect.  And moments of idealism and hope were as fully encompassed in O'Connor's performance as, say, the gloomy progress of the quatrain in the third song, which runs, in a declining cadence of mood typical of German romanticism: "And as, happily, the sun deserts / The empty light of day, / He who knows real anguish / Finds, in the dark, a silent hideaway."

Pintscher guided the performance with maximum support always at the ready behind the singer, as well as sensitivity to the wide palette of colors in the orchestration (Mike Chen's viola solos during "Im Treibhaus" merits special mention).  Delicately placed repeated accompaniment figures in the final song, "Träume," gave exquisite closure to this wonderful song cycle.

The program (to be repeated at 8 tonight at the Palladium) opened with a seven-minute piece by the guest conductor, titled "Towards Osiris."  With a source in ancient Egyptian mythology as filtered through the art of the composer's countryman Joseph Beuys, the work starts with displays of rough splendor appropriate to a god, with lots of vaulting trumpet played with apparent flawlessness by ISO principal Conrad Jones. There emerge some quiet, slow contrasts to the dominating start of the piece. Lots of well-deployed percussion characterizes the latter part of the work, which devolves into silence. Without belaboring the point, "Towards Osiris" seemed a better example of new music, with the orchestral riches under better control and presented to better advantage, than last week's new ISO work, Dejan Lazic's "Mozart & Salieri."

Occupying the concert's second half was Sergei Rachmaninoff's final work, "Symphonic Dances." The work's rhythmic elan throughout justifies its title, though fantasy elements in the elaborate three-movement score suggest that the music would be difficult to choreograph coherently. Orchestral display remains uppermost: The ensemble is poised to cavort over a wide range of dynamics and variegated colors, and the ISO seemed to revel in the sprawling work's manifold opportunities to do so.

The veiled melancholy of the second-movement waltz got an extra heart-tugging quality in a few delicately slowed transitional passages. Standout individual performances in the first movement speak to its intense contrasts: Mark Ortwein's yearning alto-saxophone solo in the second theme and the thunderous, animating punctuation that timpanist Jack Brennan lent to the main theme.

Pintscher made the most of the emotional range of the finale, with the composer's repeated motivic use of the "Dies Irae" chant coming in for some nimble treatment that requires this medieval melody of foreboding to sound oddly insouciant and quick on its feet before the movement accelerates to a final frenzied splash of percussion.