Saturday, January 27, 2018

Indianapolis Symphony concert with two fine singers: Mahler and Beethoven in relaxed, nostaglic moods

Music full of allusions and references to the real world makes up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts. Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony — the closest he wrote at considerable length to "program music" — is the concert companion to Mahler's Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with the excellent guest soloists Thomas Hampson and Kelley O'Connor.

The notion that what's sometimes known as absolute music (the opposite of program music) is vague
Thomas Hampson brought his well-schooled baritone.
in comparison was dispatched by Felix Mendelssohn long ago, when he declared that, on the contrary, music is characteristically better and more specific than words for expressing feelings. About his Symphony No. 6 in F major, Beethoven took pains to anticipate this viewpoint in suggesting that "people will not require titles to recognize the general intention to be more a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds."

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted a warm, illuminating performance of the work Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The feelings were fully engaged, though of course listeners who gravitate toward pictorialism are justifiably charmed by the piece. On the other hand, Claude Debussy, who was briefly a music critic, was among those who, even today, think less of the "Pastoral" for what they see as its literal references. "Unnecessarily imitative," the French master sniffed, focusing on the bird calls at the end of the second movement.

One of those birds is a cuckoo, whose two-note call is best known from cuckoo clocks. A peculiar instance of literalism links both works on this weekend's program: In one of the Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the cuckoo proposes a singing contest between himself and a nightingale. Few would doubt the outcome of such a competition, but the cuckoo, having chosen an ass as judge, is awarded the palm. With falsetto followed by nasal braying, Hampson's rendering of the last line (in translation) was typical of his lively interpretation: "Cuckoo, cuckoo! Heehaw!" (The ass is a stand-in for critics, as the creature is also in Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals." I will drop this train of thought here, lest I come to resemble the transmogrified Bottom the Weaver in "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")

The baritone shared the work's vocal duties with mezzo-soprano O'Connor. Both lent full expressiveness to their songs, which are fortunately allowed space for texts and translations in the ISO program book. Some shadowy projection afflicted the end of Hampson's "Sentinel's Nightsong" and O'Connor's extended turn on the word "Haide" (heath) in "Who Thought Up This Song." Otherwise, both singers sounded vocally secure.

Kelley O'Connor was a fine vocal partner.
Hampson was outstanding in "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish," under excellent control through most of the "Nightsong," vivid in "Praise of Lofty Intellect" (the one with the singing contest), defiant in "Song of the Persecuted in the Tower," and extraordinarily moving in "The Drummer Boy." The cycle in these concerts ends with Urlicht ("Primeval Light"), which Mahler fans are more accustomed to hearing from a female soloist in the "Resurrection" Symphony. But why shouldn't a man confront the interfering angel as much as a woman in that transcendent song, especially when it's done this well?

O'Connor was particularly impressive in the eerie song "The Earthly Life," which has the fateful grimness often found in folk poetry, as well as the captivating "Rhine Legend" and the well-characterized dialogue assigned to solo voice, "Labor Lost." As an encore, the singers were well-matched in an actual dialogue song from the cycle, Trost im Unglück,  a romantic battle of wits.

What stood out in the "Pastoral" Symphony were the steady tempos throughout and the keen judgment of winds-and-strings balances. Movement by movement, these things as well: the evenness of the repeated figures in the first movement, the subtly impelled "scene by the river," the party spirit that animates the third movement, the pacing and varied intensity of the thunderstorm, and the authentic atmosphere of pious sincerity in the finale.

That's the peasants' hymn of gratitude to God for their having come through the storm intact and perhaps imploring divine mercy for whatever sins they may have committed in the third movement. The orchestra's sins were minimal to non-existent. Heehaw!