Saturday, October 12, 2019

Unflashy guest maestro sparks animated ISO program

Friday's concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra began with explicitly picturesque music and ended
Pablo Sainz-Villegas showed flair and personal commitment in Rodrigo.
with an abstract symphony that has extramusical connections for some listeners.

In between came a concerto whose middle movement may have called up images for many, since  the Adagio of "Concierto de Aranjuez" was used to sell the Chrysler Cordoba for many years in TV commercials. It was typical of automobile marketing in seeking to tie our vehicles to our dreams.

The explicitly picturesque muscled onto the scene immediately as guest conductor Robert Spano gave the downbeat for "All Things Majestic" by Jennifer Higdon. The initial chord of the first movement, "Teton Range," was marred by a burble in the brass, but the choralelike ensemble soon became solid. Massive sonorities assembled as if to represent the rigors of mountain climbing — or the effect of simply looking up at the heights.

Higdon, a popular contemporary composer (her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was premiered here, and the ISO is among many symphony orchestras to have presented her "blue cathedral") evokes Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park in this 2011 commission from the music festival there.

Robert Spano is this weekend's guest conductor at Hilbert Circle Theatre.
The subsequent movements — "String Lake," "Snake River," and "Cathedrals" — settle into the awe and wonder that the national park system is designed to stimulate in Americans forever. The strings come to the fore in the second movement; the mirror-like stillness is effectively represented, as are glints on the lake surface via brief solos and gently divided string voices.

"Snake River" displayed a muscular force and flow somewhat evocative of William Schuman, a rather neglected mid-20th-century modernist. The sparkling turmoil, sometimes suggesting a river at flood stage, was moderated by nice touches of celesta. That bell-like keyboard instrument, best known to the public via Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," is coupled with the harp extensively in the piece's finale. Keeping her affinity with natural imagery strong, Higdon also focuses on how the orchestra's inner circle of strings can suggest the patterns of light pouring down through the lofty crowns of a forest, defining the heights the way light does in the great Gothic cathedrals.

This attractive, detailed tone poem provided a splendid introduction  to the appearance of this weekend's guest artist, Pablo Sainz-Villegas.  The Spanish guitarist played the popular Rodrigo concerto, giving evidence of his facility and the clarity and bite of his articulation from the first. The modestly scored orchestral accompaniment was colorful and sprightly.

In the second movement beloved of so many and subject to so many different adaptations, I admired the high profile of his vibrato in the theme and the variety of well-turned ornamentation. In both the unaccompanied guitar solos, Sainz-Villegas gave ample evidence of his force of personality; the depth of sound in the first one was stunning, and the more passionate flamboyance of the second indicated that Rodrigo wanted this showcase to have more than one famous tune going for it. Roger Roe was outstanding in perhaps the second most-famous English-horn solo in the repertoire (next to the one in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony).

The finale was full of sparkling figuration after the theme had stated its case clearly in canon. Rarely has a concerto with such a quiet ending brought such an outpouring of audience rapture at the end; that was a sure sign that the soloist had won everyone over along the way. He responded to the ovation with an encore that underlined the tone-painting emphasis: "Jota" by Francisco Tarrega, a protean dance-based piece featuring the imitation of snare drums, rhythmically well-enunciated on stopped strings to maximize the effect. After a calm episode, the acceleration near the end approximated the joys of the wine harvest that Sainz-Villegas referred to in announcing the encore.

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major has long given me problems as a professional listener. It can seem too episodic, even though it's easy to recognize what holds it together. Sometimes it sounds like Tchaikovsky with ADHD. In such a smoothly knit-together performance as the one Spano led Friday evening, the fitfulness of the Finnish composer's attention fades away and the integrity of the score shines forth. I still find the Andante kind of "bitty," but Spano made it cohere.

Distinguished for his long association with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra among other sterling credits, Spano got great results with little need for showmanship. I have no idea how he talks to orchestras he visits in rehearsal, but with no extravagance of gesture, so much that's germane to the music seems to emerge in performance without choreography. There are no slalom poses,  taffy pulls when a swelling sound is called for, no crouching or lunging. He adheres to the basics: tempo and dynamics, tempo and dynamics. He is a big-picture guy, and doesn't feel the need to cue just about every entrance.

The Sibelius Second is one of those pieces that overwhelms me in the course of its climactic finale, despite its obviousness of effect. The big tune in the "Allegro moderato" and the repeated hints we get of it, the pulling back of the intensity even as we realize we're about to get hit again — it all works, every time. And the heroic quality gave it a patriotic aura during Finland's long time of trial at the turn of the 20th century. That underlines the picturesque theme in a way, but only when I make the comparison with the jingoistic build-up in Respighi's "Pines of Rome," which also overwhelms my resistance. With the Italian's finale, "The Pines of the Appian Way," I feel like a somewhat recalcitrant citizen of ancient Rome, his toga getting sweaty in the buzzing crowd, watching the return of the imperial army from yet another conquest. "Here come those blasted legions, finally," he mutters to himself. "I guess I might as well salute."

I feel the same about the Sibelius Second. With a performance so astutely guided, and a climax that's inevitably seductive in a performance like this one, I might as well salute.

1 comment:

  1. Appreciate the comments re: conducting gesture. I actually attended his first rehearsal on Tuesday morning with some conducting students from Butler. His approach then was equally, elegantly simple and direct: "Good morning, nice to see you again. (*gives downbeat for the Sibelius first movement). Good stuff!