Friday, June 7, 2013

ISO, guest soloist plumb 'The Mysteries of Light' as Classical Series concludes

The first time I heard any music by James MacMillan was at a concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in 1998, with Evelyn Glennie as percussion soloist in a piece written for her, Veni,Veni, Emmanuel.

I came away with the impression I still have today: This is not only a composer who speaks in his own voice, but also knows how to lay out a large work effectively.  Both are rare gifts.

The Scottish composer has maintained those gifts, as evidenced by another large work, also steeped in MacMillan's Catholic faith and also written for a major international soloist: Piano Concerto No. 3 ("The Mysteries of Light"), which Jean-Yves Thibaudet played with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Thibaudet premiered the work in 2011 with what one is sadly tempted to call the late, lamented Minnesota Orchestra. It's a pleasant sign of the ISO music director's commitment  to the music of his time that such a piece has a central position on the final Classical Series program of the season.

Perhaps of more significance is that the last sounds Classical Series patrons will remember from this season are those of the masterwork of Polish modernism, Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, which occupies the second half of this weekend's concerts. Urbanski announced at the beginning of his tenure that acquainting Indianapolis audiences with music of his homeland will be a major aspect of his artistic profile with this orchestra. What better way to crown a season than with this piece, easy to assimilate on first hearing and endlessly fascinating as an orchestra showcase!

But back to the MacMillan: Based on the Luminous Mysteries, meditations that Pope John Paul II added to the rosary in 2002, the concerto never skates lightly over its spiritual foundation. Yet it can be appreciated as an abstract representation of genuine experiences grounded in belief, whether the listener shares that faith or not.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet brings to the ISO a piece written for him.
Many of MacMillan's shorter works confirm another gift: He's eclectic, but not interested in pastiche or parody. That's evident here too, notably in the folk-dance vigor of an episode in the second movement, "The Wedding at Cana," which still doesn't lose sight of the solemnity of the miracle performed at that event or of Jesus' solemnization of marriage there. MacMillan can cast a wide net musically and count on hauling in a palate-pleasing catch.

The piano part establishes a mercurial relationship to the wealth of material, in the first movement decorating with rapid passagework the plainchant that unifies "Baptism in the Jordan."
The plainchant returns in the finale before a strenuous peroration that seems to put a seal on the Eucharist rite's fusion of sacrifice and salvation.

For all the elaboration with which he treats his ideas, MacMillan builds from the bones out, as it were. The dark rumbling that launches "The Transfiguration" patiently admits the light of the work's title as the movement climaxes in a tremendous crescendo across all the strings, given awe-inspiring intensity in Friday night's performance.

The piano part requires Thibaudet to assert the centrality of the solo instrument's role, sometimes against a massively deployed orchestra, sometimes in passagework that would seem gaudy were it not capable of refining itself into prayerful simplicity. He displayed heroic mastery of such requirements Friday.

The Lutoslawski, while risky for the time and place of its creation (Poland in 1954), has a more orderly structure, which is not to discount such innovations as the grand combination of passacaglia, toccata and chorale in the last movement. The angularity and accented lines of the opening "Intrada" focused the attention, and the high spirits never lagged — right through a very fast second movement, concluding with brilliantly diminishing percussion figures, and on to the grandeur of the finale, in which the transition from the passacaglia to the toccata was especially well-managed.

In fact, as far as I could tell, the only poorly executed music of the evening was the opening phrase or two of Mozart's Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, muddily played by the violins, but clearing up the second time around. The delightful persistence of percussion in the main section was deftly folded  into the lively theme — exotic splashes of color that whetted the appetite for the glorious spectra displayed in the program's other two pieces.


  1. Jay's review is spot on. The MacMillan and the Lutoslawski were revelatory. The Mozart started poorly and (I never thought I would say this), the Mozart was the least of the pieces. Jim

  2. I'm glad this blog is so compatible to my cell phone because I like to reread as I'm waiting for the concert to begin or during intermission.

  3. Excellent review. I didn't notice the muddiness in the Mozart, but thought Urbanski kept the piece marvelously under control throughout (your phrase "deftly folded" captures the feeling perfectly). In retrospect, I suspect the ISO was anticipating the sonic wonders to come.

  4. Thanks for your blog! Guess no more reviews in the Star.