Saturday, April 7, 2018

Urbanski leads the ISO in a run-up to its Washington, D.C., appearance next week

The marketing focus has been on the familiar work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts. But the exciting move forward was preparation for a concert in Washington, D.C.,
Alisa Weilerstein, soloist with ISO here and in Washington.
next weekend, and the program's inclusion of two compositions from the music director's homeland.

Krzysztof Urbanski anchored Friday's Classical Series concert in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, and he used the concert's first half to show off the orchestra in Wojciech Kilar's "Orawa" and Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto, the latter featuring American concert artist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.

The bracing Lutoslawski piece will be featured in the SHIFT Festival appearance of the ISO on April 13. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts concert will be supplemented by Krzysztof Penderecki's "Credo," with vocal soloists and two local choruses: the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. A preview of that performance, dubbed the Bon Voyage concert, will be offered at Hilbert Circle Theatre on Wednesday evening.

This period of extensive exposure to the ISO in two cities — its hometown and the nation's capital — brings extra attention to Urbanski in his seventh season at the ISO's artistic helm. His busy international schedule has expanded his reputation around the world, and the emphasis on modern Polish music currently should add further luster to his profile.

Opening the concert was the folk-flavored "Orawa," a ten-minute excursion through pulsating rhythms and punchy themes built upon the pentatonic (five-note) scales found in many of the world's indigenous musics, including Poland's. It's also a clever exercise in variety of texture within the string orchestra, with solos and small combinations highlighted. The pulse maintains its energy, and in this performance sounded animated beyond the metronomic dimensions that the Polish dance idiom that inspired the piece might suggest. The audience was clearly energized by the account well before the final shouted "Hey!"

The forces that contend within Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto put it at a distant remove from the exuberant forthrightness of "Orawa." Indeed, as Urbanski indicated in remarks from the podium before welcoming Weilerstein to the stage, the concerto is rooted in the competitive idea at the root of the concerto form. The soloist is less a partner with the orchestra here than a hero countering the accompaniment's recurrent, implacable antagonism.

Weilerstein's stage manner, with her long hair flying and her facial expression favoring resolve bordering on anguish, suited the work's implicit scenario well. More important, however, was her mastery of the work's musical demands: its sprightly harmonics, its defiant buzz of double stops, its controlled brutality, its sighing glissandos, and chiefly its confident "cantilena"—  the triumphant lyrical impulse through which Lutoslawski seems to favor the cello's progress from indifference through commitment in the face of overwhelming forces. 

All of this was so crisply and passionately defined in Weilerstein's account that the sometimes startling vigor of the orchestra amounted to a true partnership after all. After a few curtain calls, marked by the presentation of a bouquet to Weilerstein by ISO principal cellist Austin Huntington, the soloist wisely lowered the temperature, but not her characteristic ardor, by offering as an encore the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C major.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth features a whirlwind finale that ascends to a coordinated clatter rife with cymbal accents, calculated to bring even a phlegmatic audience to its feet. This was not such an audience, as indicated earlier by the rousing reception given to "Orawa" and the attentiveness and eventual enthusiasm with which the Lutoslawski was received.

The first statement of the "motto" fanfare was a little roughshod, but just about everything after it went smoothly. The first recurrence of the fanfare gave way to an initially subdued development. That was typical of the generous ebb and flow imparted to all the complex material in the first movement. 

It was evident in the second movement that the core woodwind group has never sounded better. Sitting principal this performance were Karen Moratz, flute; Jennifer Christen, oboe; Samuel Rothstein, clarinet, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon. For reasons that are too "inside-baseball" to go into, that particular group is not one ISO patrons are accustomed to as first-chair occupants. Without singling anyone out, these four sounded perfect together in this piece.

After the fast-paced subtleties of the third movement with its famous "pizzicato ostinato," the performance was crowned with an Allegro con fuoco that was solid from top to bottom. Urbanski maximized the tension that accumulates after each appearance of the structurally vital fanfare. Wherever Tchaikovsky stipulated a gathering of renewed force, conductor and orchestra were there to embody it. Such fitness gave this performance so much more than the programmatic significance that the composer regretted ever having supplied for the work.