Saturday, May 5, 2018

Other than the ISO's 'ravishing' Rachmaninoff: A bracing violin concerto replaces an unfinished commissioned work

The last time we heard a concerto by a contemporary Finnish composer on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra schedule, the intention and effect of the piece were quite different.

Just over two years ago, Kari Kriikku, a clarinetist with an antic disposition to match his virtuosity,  played the American premiere of the concerto he commissioned from his countryman Kimmo Hakola. I described it as "an effusive game," which is where I'll leave any further reference to it here.

Jennifer Koh brings a Finnish concerto.
For comparison, Kaija Saariaho's "Graal Theatre," for violin and orchestra, is a more consistently earnest, almost self-absorbed approach to treating the solo instrument and its accompaniment. The American violinist Jennifer Koh was the guest artist for the ISO's first performance of the 1994 work, under the baton of another American of growing reputation, Karina Canellakis.

"Graal Theatre" replaced a co-commissioned violin concerto by Andrew Norman that wasn't finished in time to retain its place on the schedule. Koh is an adventurous musician for whom the challenges of the barbed Saariaho piece are meat and drink. She is quite receptive to music that expands the violin's conventional idioms. That is demonstrated by how she, working with pianist Shai Wosner, handles Bartok, Kurtag, and Janacek in "Signs, Games + Messages," an exciting recital disc available on Cedille Records of Chicago, her hometown.

Saariaho is not the first composer to regard the percussion section as an actual voice in symphonic music rather than more or less essential decoration. But she signals immediately as "Graal Theatre" gets under way that percussion can function as an equal partner to the violin, and the piece makes a point of bringing just about anything that can be struck into play.

Kaija Saariaho's piece expands the violin idiom.
From there, the orchestra in all sections functions as stimulation, confirmation, contradiction and response to the soloist. The work's two linked parts, Delicato and Impetuoso, have the separate characters the titles indicate; at the same time, the expressive profile is a closely integrated matter.

In Koh's electrifying performance Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, the audience heard how the violin weaves scratchiness, frantic string crossings, harmonics, gymnastic registral leaps, ghostly murmurings and fluty sounds into a whole. The textures are sometimes knotted, sometimes gossamer-thin.

The solo instrument is provoked into fresh furies, and also into fierce introspection. The work strongly suggests it's about the violin talking to itself, coming to new realizations about contexts and opportunities, as we are forced to do in life. The realizations are rough, yet, in this committed performance (with much shedding of bow hair), oddly enchanting.

Canellakis and the ISO opened the program with an appetizer of unusual resourcefulness and charm, Debussy's "Rondes de Printemps" from "Images." The celebration of spring concisely represented by the work displayed its full picturesqueness in Friday's performance. The impulse behind its dance rhythms was always alive and pungent; it swung, if borrowing the jazz term is not inappropriate.

The guest conductor's gestural manner — flowing, billowing, full of neat folds and linkages — was further put to the test by the program's lengthiest work, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor. ISO's marketing attached "ravishing" to the piece in promoting this concert, and indeed it ravishes many listeners — including some people I know in and close to the symphonic scene in Dallas, where the piece was performed a couple of months ago.

It has its ravishing moments for me as well, and they were conspicuous in Friday's performance. But I find great swaths of this symphony irritating. Let me bring to bear an anecdote about a prosperous Quaker farmer who was disturbed one night to find an intruder in his downstairs hallway. The gentleman had a little-used weapon ready to apply to the situation. Raising it into firing position, he said to the burglar: "I would not for all the world harm thee, friend, but thee are standing where I plan to shoot."

Without intending harm to any of its admirers, let me warn that the Rachmaninoff Second is standing where I plan to shoot.

The first movement strikes me as a gargantuan taffy pull, stretched and strained at length. The Adagio throws before us one of the loveliest clarinet solos in the orchestral repertoire — and who could resist the tender, ad libitum flair David Bellman gave to it last night? But much of the rest of the movement seems like padding; it wears out its welcome. If you are not immune to the Rachmaninoff afflatus, you stick with this music to the end in ecstatic gratitude, I suppose.

But now, in the true Quaker spirit of my story, I want to lower my critical firearm to sing the praises of the second movement, Allegro molto. This scherzo is a work of genius: Friday night I was hanging on every note. Even the transitional material is inspired. The main theme captivates immediately, the contrasting one is full of life, and the chattering "Trio" episode is fully their equal. The brass chorale near the end is a perfect touch.

Of the finale, which in my estimation stands well above the first and third movements but below the scherzo, there are two wonderful places in the uncut version (which has become de rigueur): one of them draws extraordinary enthusiasm from Michael Steinberg in his book "The Symphony" in an essay that summons up much more love for the Rachmaninoff Second than I can muster.

It's in the development, where hints of downrushing scales from before become full-blown and widely distributed — different speeds, registers, colors that gather ringingly toward a climax. Just thinking of that passage now give me chills. The other excitement in this movement for me is the change Rachmaninoff introduces when he brings back the lyrical theme: The brass become subtly commanding in the background, not undercutting the melody but giving it new urgency before the movement's main business is reestablished in the last few measures, punctuated with a resounding thump. The composer doesn't just double down on his lyrical inspiration but presents it as a song of experience, changed by its lively neighborhood.

So there, lovers of the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony. At most I've merely grazed your favorite, who, after all, had a right to be there in the first place, unlike the home invader disturbing the Quaker's peace. I can't take exception to anything in Friday's sterling performance, though I will never love this composition on the whole.