Saturday, October 28, 2017

Augustin Hadelich probes to the heart of Britten's Violin Concerto in ISO appearance

Creative artists react to the outside world in ways that eventually wrench the focus away from the situations that moved them
Mutual admiration society: Shostakovich and Britten in 1966.
toward the art itself. The artistic product then has to be a tub that rests on its own bottom.

Two such compositions by composers who late in life became friends across the formidable Cold War divide were Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom are represented in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program.

The Spanish Civil War tended to draw artists to the Republican side, whose anti-fascist promise was deeply compromised by the Communist shenanigans George Orwell scrupulously describes in "Homage to Catalonia." The British writer's experience of the conflict eventually produced better-known literary warnings in different genres: the satirical fable "Animal Farm" and the coruscating futurist novel "1984."
Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," one of a series.

Britten's sympathies were largely anti-fascist in what amounted to an Iberian workshopping of the cataclysmic drama of World War II. As a pacifist, his deepest response could only be one of sorrow, and the result was his Violin Concerto, written in 1939 when Francisco Franco's victory was fresh and lamented by the international left. American abstract painter Robert Motherwell launched a series of paintings titled "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," which could serve as a subtitle for Britten's searing concerto.

Augustin Hadelich, 2006 gold medalist in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, has since received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and was just named Musical America Worldwide's Instrumentalist of the Year. In my experience, he can always be counted on to give an illuminating, profoundly committed performance, ranging from the tangos he  played with a guitarist for the IVCI Laureate Series to the Stravinsky Concerto he played at Oregon's Britt Festival  three years ago.

With guest conductor Andrey Boreyko on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, Hadelich delivered a firmly centered, eloquent account of the Britten concerto Friday night. There was an almost larger-than-life characterization to the martial music that succeeds the main theme in the first movement. Some weakness of double stops in harmonics at the end proved to be the only departure from the soloist's excellence.

Augustin Hadelich by the Brooklyn Bridge, typical of his affinity for imposing structures.
The harmonics were much more solid in the cadenza that bridges the second and third movements. The left-hand pizzicato figures decorating the bowed melody were firm. The cadenza overall had monumental stature, leading into a passionate, rhythmically acute finale. That movement features the most portentous late introduction of the trombones since Beethoven's Fifth. It was among the glories of the orchestra's contribution to Hadelich's performance. Successive string entrances at one point in the third-movement passacaglia were enough to explain why Boreyko wanted a rare division of first and second violins on either side of him.

The orchestra shone throughout the fast second movement in particular, which contains some of the inspired gift for orchestration Britten was later to display in "Peter Grimes" and the "War Requiem."And Hadelich movingly produced well-paced marvels of lamentation on the way to the final double bar.  Then he offered a perfect encore, not seeking to break the mood but to complement it: the Andante movement from J.S. Bach's second sonata for unaccompanied violin. "Andante" means "walking," basically, and the violinist's tread was steady and unerring, the mood thoughtful.

Shostakovich answered expectations of a grandiose ninth symphony from Soviet authorities with a work that blends sardonic humor with frivolity and even flim-flam. The E-flat major symphony is flecked with high-spirited, sometimes whimsical orchestral solos. They were brightly performed Friday night by bassoonist John Wetherill, trumpeter Conrad Jones, flutist Karen Moratz, and concertmaster Zach De Pue. The orchestra caught the spirit throughout.

Marianne Tobias' program notes detail the shock with which official Stalinism greeted Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. For the rest of us, it's salutary still to have such a piece among the more monumental Ninths that preceded it.  Whatever the composer's
Corky McCoy's cover for some street-wise Miles Davis music.
motivation, the music is an odd blend of celebration and mockery, almost cartoonish — in the manner of Corky McCoy's cover illustrations for several Miles Davis LPs. The comparison might seem far-fetched, but I feel Shostakovich was trying to connect with ordinary Russian people in this work, thumbing his nose at establishment expectations.

 Similarly, the jazz trumpeter wanted to reach the street with "On the Corner," "Big Fun," and other releases and had to buck the set-in-stone corporate notions of Columbia Records in getting approval for McCoy. In his Ninth, the less brash Shostakovich plays friskily with stereotypes, going a little folkish and even circusy, with a few sentimental episodes along the way. Both men knew their markets. Most people don't go about their daily lives thinking of ideology or uplift.

Shostakovich at his peppiest tends to derive from the "Allegro con spirito" of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," which has better material and a more concentrated, eventful structure. But the 20th-century Russian composer is a master of laying out sometimes so-so material across a broad terrain, even when he's working compactly as he does here. This performance was a treat, cheeky and refreshing.

The concert opened with Britten's arrangement for reduced orchestra of the second movement of Gustav Mahler's third symphony, "What the Wild Flowers Tell Me."  The performance had a nice range of pastels applied to the main material; the windy gusts that vary the theme were rather mild the first time around, but blew a bit more firmly upon their return. The arrangement makes for an inviting curtain-raiser to an unusual program, which will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon.