Sunday, April 22, 2018

ICO reaps continued rewards from connection with James Aikman as composer in residence

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, continues to make a
James Aikman, composer of a Viola Concerto for Csaba Erdelyi
more richly outlined self-portrait in its programming.

In part, this has been accomplished through the association of several years' standing with Indianapolis native James Aikman as composer in residence. What this has most recently yielded is a Viola Concerto, whose premiere performance was given Saturday night by the orchestra and its  principal violist Csaba Erdelyi, for whom it was written.

The principle of contrast or differentiation between one or more instrumentalists and an ensemble is basic to the concerto. That principle makes it older than the symphony, which anchors the repertoire up to today for the type of musical organization known as the symphony orchestra. And the principle is roomy enough to go in the direction of competition or toward partnership. Seen the latter way, it's more evident that each partner is completing something absent in the other rather than trying to establish dominance.

That's the ruling tendency in Aikman's new work, which enjoyed a zestful, highly colored first performance under Kraemer's baton. The premiere was nestled between a couple of 20th-century European suites well-suited to being taken up by chamber orchestras.  All around, then, this concert enhanced the profile of the ICO and gave further luster to its unique place in Indianapolis' musical life.

The composer has provided a thorough guide to the new piece, including details that might well escape notice on first hearing. Drawing back from the creator's magnifying glass somewhat, especially in his analysis of the first movement, I heard a winning approach to embedding the solo instrument in the texture, including unconventional splashes of percussion, cultivation of an air of mystery, and eventually complex interchanges with the full ensemble. Consciously or not, Aikman chose a path opposite to the most famous modern viola concerto, Bela Bartok's, for which Erdelyi has completed a version to vie with Tibor Serly's.

Aikman presents the viola as an interlocutor in an almost concerto-for-orchestra context. It does not assert itself from the start in the Bartok manner; on the other hand, it doesn't fade into the woodwork, either. Erdelyi's performance was measured, sturdy, and patrician in manner, with just enough flair to bring out Aikman's interest in showcasing the viola under various lights. In "Serenade," the second movement, I liked the variety of color and forcefulness given to the steady pulse in the accompaniment; Erdelyi's lyrical side was given prominence against a background of stately lament.

Csaba Erdelyi, ICO principal viola, presented the concerto's premiere.
The finale swept into a propulsive, uplifting atmosphere, with new kinds of exchange between viola and ensemble. There were dramatic pauses and an effective settling down near the end. The movement carried the label "Danse," and the reason for the French version of "dance" eludes me. I'm reminded of what Harold Schonberg, the greatest of New York Times music critics, once wrote when reviewing George Crumb's "Variazioni": "Kind of a swanky title — why not 'Variations'?"

Friday's concert opened with a fey dance suite, Le Festin de l'Araignee (The Spider's Feast), by Albert Roussel. With its evocation of insects at a deadly arachnid chowdown, the music is lightly touched by wit and a faux-visual perspective. It featured several finely rendered solos, notably by  principal flutist Gabriel Fridkis.

The orchestra's solo chops were further tested in the lengthier suite that made up the second half, Richard Strauss' "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." The German composer had more stylistic games to play in addition to complementing the Moliere play of the same title. He dabbles in expertly saluting the 17th-century tyrant of French court music, Jean-Baptiste Lully, a contemporary of the playwright's. The knock on German humor is that it's a thin book, but really it's just a bit more heavy-handed. The capacity for amusement still comes through when Strauss, for example, is in a playful mood applying his protean skills to baroque dance forms.

The ICO performance was notable for sprightly solos by oboist Leonid Sirotkin and concertmaster Tarn Travers. The expressive weight of "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" falls upon the finale, the feast itself — with its rollicking course of lamb recalling the bleating sheep of "Don Quixote" and a couple of cheeky quotes from Verdi's "La donna e mobile." The drollery was neatly brought off; balances were perfectly enhanced by the Schrott's warm acoustics. The ICO sounds more and more at home there; this is no accidental accomplishment, as both the programming and its execution Saturday made clear.