Saturday, November 9, 2019

ISO's French connections: Urbanski crowns the month's first Classical Series program with Debussy

The last time Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Krzysztof Urbanski collaborated in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: In the driver's seat for Ravel and Connesson
program, the vehicle also hinted at warm Franco-American relationships in music.

Then there was a meeting of minds around George Gershwin's Concerto in F. As the program note of this weekend's concerts makes clear, Gershwin and his older French contemporary Maurice Ravel had a mutual admiration society, though their acquaintance was slight, centered on a New York meeting in 1928. A common interest in jazz and in melody helped to bond them. Thibaudet, himself an exemplar of Franco-American amity, maintains personal and artistic homes in Los Angeles and his native Lyon, France.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The program, also including works by Guillaume Connesson and Claude Debussy, will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon. In the Ravel, the pianist displayed a pronounced affinity for snappy rhythms and fast tempos (in the outer movements), and a melting lyricism in the Adagio assai.

His affinity with American jazz icons (he has made recordings focused on Bill Evans and Duke Ellington) may account for some of his behind-the-beat phrasing in the slow movement, a feeling of holding back while not dragging the regular pulse, which is known in European classical music (Chopin especially) as rubato. That movement also featured a tremendous, well-managed crescendo and a lambent English-horn solo by Roger Roe.

In the finale, alert staccato bursts from the orchestra complemented Thibaudet's own liveliness. The Presto pace was maintained pedal-to-the-metal, with some bone-rattling accents. The bustling first movement concluded in a downward rush all around that was just flippant enough to be witty rather than dismissive.

Thibaudet returned to lend his gift for dispatching fleet figuration and climactic cannonades to a contemporary French piece, "The Shining One," by Connesson, who's just shy of 50 years old. Modernism having presented a cornucopia of orchestral riches in the past century, today's active composers have plenty to draw upon when they move beyond it and give respectful attention to other cultural matters. In this case, it's the genre of the fantasy novel, specifically "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt.

Some treasures of modernism, as well as a few antecedents, are enumerated in Marianne Tobias' program note for "The Shining One." Over the course of nine lively minutes, ending in a brouhaha for everyone, it was impossible to trace on a single hearing just who ranks highest among Connesson's precursors. If a pattern of allusiveness can be found, it adds up to a musical profile that seems paradoxically individual.

"The Shining One" is the second Connesson piece ISO audiences have heard this year. Of the first, "Les cit├ęs du Lovecraft," I wrote: "Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece." Fortunately, this weekend's Connesson isn't long enough to become naggingly overripe. But there was a plethora of ear-striking that held the attention.

After intermission came one of Urbanski's triumphs interpreting standard repertoire. "La Mer," Debussy's three symphonic sketches (as he described the work), received a richly detailed performance that had all the sweep and majesty of its subject that one could ask for. It may have been misunderstood when it was new because Debussy's idiom had not been fully absorbed and some listeners were expecting a more obviously pictorial treatment of nature's most abundant feature and source of the planet's life.

Hokusai's "Mount Fuji," which enchanted Debussy.
I've long considered "La Mer" to be unique among works inspired by nature and keen to raise images in our mind's eye. What's unique is how emotionally engaging it is. It may be because it's more a parallel to the sea than an evocation of it. Plenty of listeners may by now enjoy reminders of the title in what they hear, but I like the purity of its layout, its intensely interwoven structure, its opaque and translucent sonorities, and the odd sense it gives that Debussy has created an ocean to place on an equal footing beside the one made by God or whatever natural forces may be responsible.

Friday's "La Mer" moved me on its own terms. Not only did it vividly suggest the sea's motion and shifts in its sunlit radiance and wind-driven temperament, the performance was sculptural as well as dramatic — like the breaking wave caught with its foamy fingers about to pounce on the shoreline in the print series by the Japanese artist Hokusai that inspired Debussy during the composition process. This allusion came through with particular strength in the finale, "Dialogue of Wind and the Sea."

In an age when plastic snags in the maws and gullets of sea creatures and in microscopic form stretches throughout the ocean-derived food chain, when appalling masses of human waste float across sluggish expanses of seawater, when the rising oceanic temperature distorts nature in such a manner that sea turtles have become too overwhelmingly female for the species to survive, we will always have Debussy's sea. It may be a matter of increasing poignancy whenever the work is performed this well that we will no longer have the Creation's sea existing simultaneously in anything close to pristine condition.



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