Sunday, January 7, 2018

All about the base: A maestro attuned to 18th-century symphonic origins returns to the ISO podium

Nicholas McGegan brought 18th-century expertise to the podium.
A glorious cul-de-sac in the history of the symphony orchestra was paid a visit to open Saturday's concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

With the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience swelled by the unusual scheduling of this weekend's only full-length classical concert (Friday evening was taken up with a special pops engagement), Nicholas McGegan returned as guest conductor to lead off with the open-air splendor of George Frideric Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks."

Among active conductors, McGegan is probably the most expert Handelian. The first part of his re-engagement Thursday morning did not afford the Coffee Concert audience the opportunity to receive the maestro's calling card. The full program made up for that before taking in Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Haydn.

Born in Saxony, Handel transplanted himself to England for most of his career, where his fame rested on opera and oratorio genres that McGegan has done much to revive for our time. Contrasts of texture and variation in dynamic plateaus add expressive heft to the dance forms Baroque composers inherited and that Handel raised to the heights of royal tribute. In the "Fireworks" suite, instrumental colors are brought to the fore against the overall context of massed ensemble sound. The symphonic principles of thematic contrast and interaction had yet to be worked out.

The rhythmic profile has to be kept clean and lively in music loaded with reinforcements. McGegan elicited the crucial potency and variety in the five movements. Those qualities are front-loaded in the lengthy Overture, with its trumpet-led calls to attention worthy of a royal celebration. Particularly striking and crisp was the contrast between trumpet and drums on the one hand, woodwinds and horns on the other, in "La Rejouissance," the next-to-last movement. The finale featured a piquant juxtaposition of two minuets, broadening and gaining majesty toward the end.

If the program had a theme, it could be identified as the romance between German-Austrian composers and England. Felix Mendelssohn made a number of visits there in his short life, the elderly Haydn gloried in English hospitality that got his creative juices flowing there, and Handel, as already mentioned, became fully at home during the reign of the first two Hanoverian kings. Mozart visited London with his family as a young prodigy. What a fertile field! England practically invented the public concert and the middle-class concertgoer, though royal and aristocratic patronage was still a must there as on the Continent.

Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, the product of the German native's visit to Scotland, opened the concert's second half. A child of the Romantic era with a patrician restraint that looked back to the 18th century, Mendelssohn in this evocative piece stirs up some of the wildness of a Scottish seascape. McGegan led a neatly lyrical performance that surged and billowed when called for.

Karen Gomyo played stylish Mozart.
The concert's other guest was Karen Gomyo as soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major. Playing the tutti passages as is customary, in solo passages, Gomyo presented smooth phrasing, an even tone and straightforward songlike appeal. Her first- and second-movement cadenzas (Mozart left none) were resourceful in making use of all the material; the moodiness of the first one seemed wholly apt. Collaboration was on point throughout; the "Adagio" movement poured liquid gold.

I'm no fan of lists or picking favorites: A spectrum of better and worse surely exists, but why be choosy about great stuff? That said, two of the greatest symphonic finales in the Classical era conclude Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony (no. 41 in C major) and Haydn's "Drumroll" (No. 103 in E-flat). They are based on totally different approaches to last-movement structure, both loaded with genius (which, despite our President's claims, tends to have an unstable quality): Mozart's synthesizes a wealth of themes and forms; Haydn's takes one theme and exploits it magnificently.

McGegan led a wondrous performance of the "Drumroll," which gets its name from the odd opening of a timpani solo, following by the orchestra's dour slow introduction to the peppy Allegro con spirito. The composer didn't indicate how he wanted that solo played. I have one recording that foreshadows how the orchestra enters by starting from nothing and building, and another that opens with a teeth-rattling fortissimo and gradually subsides. ISO principal timpanist Jack Brennan chose a third way that was quite effective: "hairpins" — soft to loud to soft.

Other highlights: Concertmaster Zach DePue's glowing solo in the variations movement and the eloquence of the Trio in the third-movement minuet. And then there was that finale!  I saw a couple of patrons leave up a side aisle just after it started. I wanted to say to them: "Hey, it's none of my business, but you really ought to hear this. You're unlikely to encounter so much tension and release and receive so much emotional payoff from such ingenious concentration on a few phrases as you will right here. Oh well, have a nice day."

As Michael Steinberg, a commentator on symphonic matters without equal in the late 20th century, once said with pardonable exaggeration, alluding to the nickname of Haydn's 94th symphony: Every Haydn symphony is a surprise symphony.