Saturday, October 19, 2019

Gold medalist with something powerful to say returns to city to play with ISO

Austrian conductor shows knack for dark-lively and light-lively music
Mood swings in classical music provide a partly hidden through-line in the history of programming. The convention in symphony-orchestra concert planning is to move from light to heavy. This weekend's Indianapolis Symhony Orchestra concerts go in the opposite direction — not strictly innovative, but somewhat unusual and refreshing.

The concerts (the second one is this afternoon at 5:30) open with one of the most formidable mainstream concertos: Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major. Friday night's performance by Richard Lin  plunged immediately into the mood of gravitas, as that long orchestral introduction to the soloist's initial entrance unfolded securely under the baton of guest conductor Christian Arming.

To end the concert, the audience would be beguiled by four of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, popular hits of the 1870s and '80s whose ingratiating qualities remain alive today. In between came a colorful work of more dour mien, also from Central Europe looking eastward: Janacek's "Taras Bulba," a suite of grim, gripping episodes inspired by Nikolai Gogol's novella of the same name.

 ISO soloist Richard Lin is an IVCI gold medalist from 2018
The trajectory of mood transition has a counterpart in the history of the symphony, which originally moved from serious to playful, like its chamber music cousins. This was substantially reversed by Beethoven, with more emotional and formal weight placed on last movements. But as revolutionary as he was, the tradition of letting up somewhat in finales and maybe even tripping the light fantastic remained strong in such a deep-dyed conservative as Brahms. He even gives this concerto finale an indication that it was to be played (translating loosely) "fast and jolly."

My impression was that Lin's treatment of the finale had those touches of lightness that Arming and the orchestra steered around in order to lay down the usual Brahms sternness and thickness of sound. The violin was not actually covered in the main theme, but perhaps a little more shadowed than he was in the movement's transitional passages or episodes. The swing into a triple-meter feeling near the end confirmed that soloist, conductor and orchestra had achieved an evident meeting of minds. The orchestra just seemed to be exercising jollity with heavier feet.

The first two movements occasion no such quibbles from me. Lin, who overcame a near-fatal automobile crash in China as a budding virtuoso, has distinguished himself in his post-recovery career, including winning the gold medal in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. 

As he had in the competition, he displayed Friday night a full, singing tone from the complexity of the first movement on. He plays with personality infusing his technical command. Bow speed and pressure seemed always well-judged, which meant that phrases were fully illuminated and given whatever degree of nuance Lin chose to apply. Articulation was exemplary.

The first-movement cadenza provided a fine example of these qualities: it had both bravura and dreaminess, and the way it dovetailed into the orchestra's re-entry with a slowing and softening of the solo line was magical. Every phrase he played had a mid-career level of professional polish. In the second movement, he followed up so well on the glowing oboe solo of Jennifer Christen that even the most decorative details were lent substantial life.  For an encore, Lin played splendidly one of a number of flashy tributes to Paganini's Caprice No. 24 for Solo Violin — Nathan Milstein's "Paganiniana."

The Austrian guest conductor not only made the most of the fun and vivacity of the four Slavonic Dances he chose to cap the long program, but also displayed mastery of the trickier and clearly menacing music of the Janacek suite. It memorializes the heroism and resistance to pain of Gogol's Cossack hero and his sons. The orchestration is bright and transparent, with some astonishing exhibitions of lower brass.  Organ and tubular bells are among the unusual timbres exploited. There was some deft soloing from assistant concertmaster Peter Vickery.

This pungent music has not been played here in 20 years, and Arming guided it with precision and flair. The cut-offs and sudden flares of bright sound had the right kind of brutal grandeur. These are tone paintings whose contemporary counterpart may be roughly equivalent to images of the bare-chested Vladimir Putin on horseback. Distasteful people and situations can occasionally be memorialized in beautiful music, as well as the more innocent delights so vividly displayed in Dvorak's Slavonic Dances.

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