Saturday, October 7, 2017

A favorite conductor, a favorite violinist — everything was in the cards for the ISO this weekend

Ever have the feeling when listening to music that you'd like to ask the composer in mid-flight, "OK, now what are you driving at, exactly?"?
Joshua Bell plays three times with the ISO this weekend, the last one at 5:30 today.


Pop music has to be catchy to catch on. Classical music properly asks your indulgence and patience. Yet I often find, occasionally even with a piece I know pretty well, the question arising: What are you driving at here, Gustav? (Or whoever; the name's not randomly chosen, but I don't mean the Englishman.)

I like it when a composition doesn't force this question upon me. When you hear Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Rhenish"), you know right away what it's driving at. Since music is intelligible but not translatable (an insight of Claude Levi-Strauss' admired by Igor Stravinsky), in this concert review I can't articulate just what it's driving at.

But "Bam!" — there it was Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre: that Lebhaft (lively) first movement, asserting itself like a pop-up thundershower, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the accustomed smooth guidance of Jun Märkl, a favorite podium guest. Sure, there were a few frayed phrases here and in the closing Lebhaft movement, but on the whole the performance was rich in character and color. 

The slowing tempo near phrase ends in the Scherzo was quite effective in emphasizing the music's song-like nature. And the tension before the movement's climax was judiciously applied. The short Nicht schnell movement had a trim, yet billowing, feeling that set up the Feierlich fourth movement. This music, inspired by the Cologne Cathedral, brought out a rich impasto of wind sonorities, and the sunny disposition of the finale was thus perfectly set in context.

You never have to wonder here what Schumann is driving at, in other words, particularly in such a spirited performance. My mischievous question doesn't indicate a prejudice against introductions, however. Introductory material often makes what follows quite clear, even if it is not exploited in a score's main body. The program's other two pieces demonstrated that.

Japanese-German guest conductor always goes over well here with orchestra and audience.
Franz Liszt's "Les Preludes" is driving at elucidating the mystery of Lamartine's  poem of the same name via exploration of a fresh formal approach to musical coherence, although the composer drew some of his original inspiration from another poet, as Marianne Williams Tobias' program note helpfully points out. 

The introduction puts enough mystery into the poet's meditations upon life itself, and it includes a big tune likely to dominate everyone's memory of the piece — somewhat like the tune in the introduction to Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. The majestic melody has had an odd couple of uses in radio history: Dr. Joseph Goebbels appropriated it to announce German military victories in World War II, and another Dr. Joseph, Maddy by name, chose it as theme music for  concert broadcasts from the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp in Michigan. Maddy got there first, by the way.

Märkl led a poised performance of "Les Preludes," adept at handling several important transitions in the one-movement work. Rhythms in the "tempest" episode had lightning vigor. The pastoral section, with harp, violins, and decorative woodwinds quite eloquent in this performance, anticipates Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried." The return of that big tune to cap the work had an extra level of grandeur, and the stage was set psychologically for the highly anticipated return of Joshua Bell to the ISO's home stage.

Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" also has a vivid introduction that leaves no doubt the German composer found the relative exoticism of Scotland's folk music enthralling and was eager to have listeners as excited by it as he was. Orchestral color is more pronounced than in other Bruch works, and the old songs are showcased in a manner calculated to appeal mostly to two subgroups of music lovers: those with imaginary or actual roots in Scottish culture and connoisseurs of fancy fiddling. 

Bell was predictably able to deliver to both sorts of fans, and others as well. His way of turning a melody to its highest expressive potential is well-known. Model bow control, sustained with a high wrist position, provides ample assurance that every phrase will be sculpted and, where appropriate, spun out to a golden tendril of sound. So it was Friday by Hoosier violin-playing's ageless golden boy, who turns 50 in December.

Märkl made the accompaniment work at all points. There was nice tempo variety in the Allegro as "Dusty Miller" was expounded upon brightly. Principal harpist Diane Evans contributed superbly to the eldritch atmosphere. The violas attractively ushered the audience into the Andante, where the lament "I'm a-doun for lack of Johnnie" provided Bell a heart-tugging melodic vehicle. 

This is the sort of piece that not only has you leaving the hall humming the tunes, but also is likely to plant an ear-worm or two in your head. I'm sure I wasn't the only one so affected, or afflicted.

That may be exactly what it's driving at.