Sunday, March 18, 2018

All-orchestral program focuses on guest conductor's affinity with three eras

No concerto soloists required guest conductor Matthew Halls to share the limelight in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Halls: British conductor makes his mark here.

The British conductor proved worth the focus as he led Saturday evening's program of J.S.Bach, James MacMillan, and Jan Sibelius at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

MacMillan is a prolific Scotsman who seems to have increased presence on American concert programs recently. In February I heard the American premiere of his Trombone Concerto in a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. I found the work so exciting that I'll admit paying insufficient attention to the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that followed intermission. I like that piece well enough, but MacMillan's arresting musical rhetoric still had command of my mind. (The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, will make his ISO debut here in April.)

MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, has been performed twice in Indianapolis — once with its dedicatee, Evelyn Glennie, as soloist, then by Colin Currie. And one of his string quartets has been chosen to mark the last Juilliard Quartet performance of first violinist Joseph Lin this spring in New York. He will be succeeded by Areta Zhulla.

On Thursday and Saturday, Halls led Sinfonietta, a 19-minute work whose title betokens both one-movement form and a reduced orchestra. Apart from strings, a wide variety of instruments is represented by a single voice each. A keening soprano saxophone makes an initial impression over a lighter-than-air string accompaniment. The calming mood lasts for just long enough for a fortissimo rip in the fabric to shock the ears.

That interruption turns out to be persistent, soon becoming both florid and chaotic. It's as if Charles Ives had wandered into Stravinsky's "Shrovetide Fair" ("Petrushka") and became disoriented by funhouse mirrors. Typical of the MacMillan works I've heard, there's a nurtured beauty that has to contend with threats and challenges. In this case, the ethereal music returns, taking on an even higher place in the heavens, as it ends with a repeated utmost-octave note from the piano. The effect was marred Saturday night by an ill-timed cellphone ring from somewhere in the audience.

Until last September, Halls was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. From what I've read of his dismissal, he may have been a victim of an oversensitive aspect of the #MeToo movement. Management responded at first to a ridiculously exaggerated report of a joke Halls made to a black soloist, but was mainly pushed to push him out by a few "hostile work-environment" charges, accounts of which don't give much basis for coming down definitively on the side of either party. A settlement proscribes both the OBF and Halls from further comment in self-defense.

This is by way of introducing his genuine claim to conduct Bach with a modern orchestra. The great Baroque composer tends to be overlooked in symphony schedules, a consequence of the triumph of "authenticity." The neglect goes back many decades, and explains why Leopold Stokowski felt compelled to orchestrate some of the Saxon master's music. The vogue for these transcriptions has long passed; the ISO last played the 1922 Stokowski-Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in 1973.

Judging from the response Saturday night to the ISO's performance of that magnificent organ work, such arrangements come across well and have merits far from the shadow of travesty they're sometimes represented as being under. The audience ate this one up. Much credit goes to Hall's astute management of balance and tempo. The broadening near the end of the fugue complemented the splendor of the orchestration. Throughout, Halls displayed insight into the peculiar blend of spectacle and probity that could well sum up the imposition of Stokowski on top of Bach.

The concert opened with a crisp, lively account of Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3. There were signs of struggle as the ISO fought to maintain the fast pace Halls set for the fast section of the Overture. Concertmaster Zach De Pue handled the violin solos with aplomb. And the ISO's trumpet section sounded brilliant wherever it was required to shine.

Halls had the well-known Air, the suite's second movement, nicely modulated with reduced strings the first time through, then supplemented by the full complement. The Bourree seemed to test the orchestra again, but the rapid pace certainly set up the quick segue into the concluding Gigue well.

After intermission came the "in-between" selection: the personalized late romanticism of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major. The mastery of tempo fluctuations Halls displayed in Bach served him well here: The transition to Presto, then more Presto, in the first movement was precisely judged and quite exciting.The second movement is pervaded by subtle shifts that were handled adroitly in this performance.

In the first movement, where the composer seems to be working out a few ideas that can take you a while to realize aren't introductory but substantive, the initial phrase of the horns was somewhat tentative. But the wind band soon sounded self-assured. Sibelius' writing for winds often seems to be a little precious, self-involved, somewhat boutique-y, like something you might find in the Carmel Arts District.

But such stuff is part of the Sibelius signature. The music historian Jan Swafford makes the witty comment that, like Dylan Thomas' poetry, Sibelius' symphonies sound greater than they are.  That thought struck me in the evanescent second movement, with its fleeting sentimentality and hints of Brahms and even Puccini. After that allure, what does it all really amount to? Pure Sibelius, for sure.

The finale was taken at a rapid clip, and the strings' sotto voce scurrying sounded really unified. All the colors in Sibelius' rather restrained palette were brought into view vividly. Halls handled the momentum of the last movement quite well, as its expansive lyricism and a catchy, pervasive rocking figure moved to a climax amid the scurrying. Never have those drastically spaced final six chords made more sense to me as the perfect way to punctuate and bring to finality all that roiling energy.