Saturday, November 23, 2013

The magic of Märkl brings 2013's Classical Series to a close

Among the guest conductors who can be counted on to get good things out of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is the Japanese-German maestro Jun Märkl.

It happened again Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, particularly after intermission, when 
Märkl led the ISO in Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36.  There was something in the air in this performance, perhaps a tinge of regret from the stage that the musicians were playing the last classical program in their home hall until January. 

Märkl worked wonders with the ISO and Beethoven.
So they may have felt it was incumbent upon them to give all they had for a conductor they clearly respect and respond to. All right, so there were moments in the Scherzo and the finale when the violins could have been more together, and there was too much trumpet in the first movement's exposition. But let me hang out the "CLOSED" sign on the Quibble Department door for now; this was a wonderful performance.

The odd tradition of looking at Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies as standing in the shadow of 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 is properly upset by performances like this one. Even if not played as sensitively as it was Friday night, the score is an astonishing masterpiece —  novel in every respect, cunningly orchestrated, full of surprises that remain fresh even after long familiarity.

Repeating the first-movement exposition helped set off the suspense with which the development is loaded, before the movement is capped by an exciting passage for cellos and basses rising from the depths. The contrasts were well-managed, sturdily executed in ways that helped the players prepare for the exhibition of subito louds and softs demanded in the last movement.  Märkl made the celebrated coda feel like the revolution this work secretly suggests, though the honor of a decisive break with the 18th-century symphony is usually given to its successor, the "Eroica" (No. 3).

Märkl, already represented on one ISO disc from the recent past, gets the credit for the third outing linked to Zuill Bailey's contract with Telarc. Cellist and conductor teamed with the ISO in the Dvorak Cello Concerto, which Telarc released in 2012.  Last January, concert performances of concertos by Nico Muhly and Ernest Bloch were recorded. With the addition of Bloch's "Three Jewish Poems," drawn from this weekend's concerts, the repertoire for the second Bailey-Märkl-ISO CD will be in the can, awaiting release next year.

In its first performance of "Three Jewish Poems," the ISO apparently represented well the spacious score by the Swiss-American composer, whose "Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra" is assuredly his best-known piece.

Bloch's music usually knows how to grab the attention, and this work held mine over its 25-minute span. The display of orchestra color is generous. Whether the composer had much of a sense of how to husband his resources is another question. He tended to write compulsively busy, lavish works that are more than a little heart-on-sleeve in expression, pervasively fond of a variety of texture, with little solos nestled among large ensemble statements.

"Three Jewish Poems" uses scale patterns characteristic of Middle Eastern music in ways Bloch was at pains to have identified as expressing his cultural sense of being Jewish, rather than Judaism itself. All three movements, even those that start out restrained (like "Cortege Funebre," the third "poem"), become flamboyant. Bloch here exercises the sort of assertiveness that grabs you by the lapels and fixes its gaze upon you to make sure you get the message. Drooping phrases reminiscent of "Schelomo" recur in "Cortege Funebre," but in a higher-register setting. At its best, this is certainly music that "communicates," to use a favorite term of ISO conductor laureate Raymond Leppard.

In the program's concerto position is Mozart's No. 23 in A major, K. 488, its solo part interpreted by Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter. Her performance took on personality after the first movement, which was a little foursquare expressively, at least up to the cadenza. Fliter can't have been much inspired by the opening tutti, which the orchestra ought to have articulated more perkily. It was a pleasant sauce into which the solo piano could eventually stir itself, and indeed, the orchestra became more precise just before the cadenza.

The dark mood of the middle movement came the closest of anything to evoking the ISO's otherwise unobserved 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. The reflective profile of Fliter's playing and the orchestra's accompaniment made a good match. Her performance took on special flair in the finale, although I never got used to the way she glided over the back half of the movement's main subject. There was nothing else so capricious in her performance, which benefited from the sort of coordinated breeziness through which she and Märkl made common cause.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bloomington's Caswell Sisters get their groove on for IVCI, Indiana Landmarks

The Cook Theater at Indiana Landmarks Center made a welcome home for a visit Tuesday night by the Caswell Sisters, fronting a five-piece group with a rhythm section their equal in rapport and panache.

Sara and Rachel Caswell (photo by John Abbott)
The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and Indiana Landmarks Center jointly sponsored the annual "jazz cabaret" in the IVCI's stellar Laureate Series of concerts.

Each sister has a style — Rachel as singer, Sara as violinist — that's straightforward but imbued with personality, not bland or cut from common cloth. It was particularly gratifying in Rachel's singing not to be confronted with a clutch of mannerisms too common among jazz vocalists.

In two sets brimming with vitality, the quintet entertained a large crowd enjoying food and drink at a number of round tables in the acoustically hospitable room. The initial full-ensemble assault in the first number must have been dialed back, for the thickness of the amplified sound soon dissipated, and the audience was treated to better balanced sound throughout the evening.

As Glen Kwok pointed out in his introduction to the music, Sara Caswell is well credentialed to be in the IVCI series.  She participated in the 2002 competition, the first Indiana native to be admitted. As part of the Josef Gingold studio since childhood she had made waves as a classical violinist before turning her focus to jazz at Indiana University.

Rachel Caswell is a skilled, seemingly intuitive scat vocalist, a near-match for her sister when the pace is frenetic. That was evident in such up-tempo numbers as "Asiatic Raes"and the rollicking "Sweet Adelphi," composed by Christine Jensen of another notable jazz sisters duo (trumpeter Ingrid Jensen completes that pair). Sara's glinting, ferocious solo set up a nicely complementary solo by Steve Allee, the top-drawer pianist of a rhythm section also including two Bloomington musicians, bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Steve Houghton.

Programming was exemplary, with the ballads nicely spaced amid the faster-paced pieces. I liked Rachel's unaffected delivery and apt phrasing in Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" and Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," both of them tenderly punctuated by Sara's violin.

The arrangements were ear-catching and fresh, too. "Bye Bye, Blackbird" was laid out with interesting rhythmic hitches in the familiar melody, complementing the violinist's long, arching lines. Charlie Haden's "First Song" provided a beautiful exposition of Sara's firm, mellow sound, and her nimble articulation got a showcase, again with Rachel taking a breather, in "Seven Rings," a Brazilian tune featuring a cymbal-intensive Houghton solo.
Sara's  original composition, "Stroll," demonstrated that striking novelty in the blues form is always possible, linked to a witty, offhand manner that was sustained by the ensemble solos and transmuted to a relaxed boogie-woogie feeling by Allen and Allee.

Solos all around characterized the vigorous fast samba that concluded the show, Nancy King's "I Sing for You,"  featuring a spirited bop unison passage for the sisters before the final chorus put a seal on this exhilarating demonstration of sibling excellence backed up by three worthy peers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Rioult Dance presents founder's inspired interpretations of Bach

The abstract energy of J.S. Bach's instrumental compositions tends to suggest the cooperative life-force that keeps organisms going. When a master of contemporary dance turns toward the 18th-century Saxon master, something elemental in that energy can be translated into a myriad interactions, gestures and physical self-definition.

In the second of two performances Saturday in the Tarkington at the Center for the Performing Arts,  Rioult Dance NY presented founder Pascal Rioult's "Views of the Fleeting World,"  "City"  and "Celestial Tides," accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.

Rioult dancers performed  "Celestial Tides" at the Tarkington.
The longest work occupied the first half. "Views of the Fleeting World" is set in nine movements, each using a string-orchestra setting of a Bach fugue.  It's a blend of natural imagery and its interpretation in terms of the human form —  singly, doubly and in company. Sounds of nature play as interludes to the music, all of it drawn from Bach's late masterpiece, "The Art of Fugue," a kind of monograph on the form whose possibilities he explored more thoroughly than any other composer. Projections on the back wall represent natural patterns of sky, trees, rain and rivers.

The variety-in-unity of the music, based as each fugue is on the same generating material, provides an analogue to the choreography's essential style throughout. Within the sustained pulse of the music,  Bach folds in a wealth of rhythmic elaboration as the contrapuntal lines sustain and comment upon each other. Rioult works from this to vary the pace of movement, particularly exploiting slow, stretching, scooping, and twisting motions, sometimes as if the dancers were moving in a slightly thicker medium than air.

In "Views of the Fleeting World," he plays at first with grouping and dividing the nine dancers. The work's "overture" emphasizes one aspect of "fleeting" in that imitative steps pass quickly before our eyes in the midst of ceaseless individual variation. It's titled "Orchard," and the dancers ripen into prominence in a shared process that embraces individuality as well. From there, the athleticism of the choreography and sporadic oppositional arrangements of the troupe increase, cresting in "Wild Horses," the work's third movement.

The initial "upside-down" treatment of the fugal subject ushers in the first of three wonderful duets, "Dusk," which opens up space for Jane Sato's tender solo in "Sudden Rain."  In this progression, it became clear that Rioult's choreography is peculiarly egalitarian, treating all four limbs as independent actors, equally capable of expression and carving out space.

Even torso and hips sometimes act like extremities. Bending, twisting, thrusting, and withdrawing are balanced in a rich vocabulary of convex and concave postures. The costumes, particularly the pleated red skirts both men and women wore in some segments and the recurring use of billowing harem pants, accentuated the spectrum of flow that such postures enabled.

The other two duets, including one daringly floor-bound and poised between tension and relaxation, came after "Night Ride," with the statuesque Anastasia Sorozcynski in an intense spotlight as the dancers move in shadows around her. She slowly becomes ennobled as the huntress Diana, the moon goddess, driving her pack of hounds off in characteristic pursuit of game. The finale has a nice culminative flair. Titled "Flowing River," it builds upon Bach's churning music as the company sums up the fleeting emphasis of the work's title.

"City," a lively quartet, put in witty terms the pressures big-city dwellers respond to and attempt to neutralize — or even transcend — in order to keep their humanity. The Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major is the vehicle for Rioult's urban fantasy, compounded of anxiety and purposeful movements that suggest the assertiveness the work world requires and the way the stance that results sometimes implodes in self-doubt. Projections behind the dancers that pan up and down the facades of skyscrapers increasingly created the exhilarating optical illusion that the stage was rising, lifting the four marginally triumphant figures with it.

Bach's Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, the one for lower strings, made a stunning vehicle for the Rioult troupe in "Celestial Tides."  The slow movement displayed a signal aspect of the Rioult choreography — two couples, paired off usually as same-sex partners, danced in a manner that brought to mind a Zen rock garden. Dancers relate not only through contact but also by shaping the space between and around them. They are the rocks; the curved lines in the sand that echo the rocks' positions are the space in between, which becomes almost substantial as it resonates with their bodies.

Of course, all dance defines the space through which bodies move — a supreme achievement of classical ballet. But Rioult's way seems more painstaking and deliberate in such sculpting, requiring a discipline, intricacy and lack of strain that reflects credit on his excellent dancers.

The fast outer movements, also brilliantly played by the ICO under the baton of James Caraher, sealed the admiration in which one holds their performance here. There was a brief passage in the finale, with the troupe's side-stepping progression toward the wing in a panoply of individual flourishes, that sent chills up my spine. The "fleeting world" had achieved a unique concentration and specificity, without cliche, that seemed to sum up the beauty of Rioult.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

French masterpieces enliven the penultimate Classical Series weekend of 2013

The often-twinned stars of early 20th century French music are showcased in this weekend's Classical Series program — rare in that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra plays three Debussy-Ravel concerts on successive days, concluding with a shortened Sunday afternoon performance in a "Student and Teacher Appreciation" outreach with discounted tickets.

The revolutionary musical language of Claude Debussy and its classicizing successor in the output of Maurice Ravel are the focus of the program, with guest conductor Carlo Rizzi conducting works featuring the Indianapolis Children's Choir and two soprano soloists.

ISO's "damozel": Isabel Bayrakdarian
Debussy's foreground in late French romanticism shows amid firm signs of a burgeoning personal style in "La Damoiselle elue" (The Blessed Damozel), his 1894 cantata on a French translation of Dante Gabriel Rosetti's poem. The work brought to the Hilbert Circle Thearte stage two outstanding sopranos: Isabel Bayrakdarian in the title role and Christine Brandes as the Narrator.

The piece opens with an orchestral prelude in the pious manner of Cesar Franck, and the chorus' concluding "sigh" brings back the churchy quality, wafting aural incense. In between, the composer explores dramatic and reflective aspects of the text, rising to operatic heights in the monologue of the damozel in heaven, hoping for a reunion with her earthly lover that is destined not to happen.

Bayrakdarian was superb in the monologue, her brilliance and intensity of expression immediately apparent. She projected the heavenly soul's fervor for solace beyond the grave, daring to find her personal heavenly reward insufficient, but keeping the mood of humble beseeching intact. Brandes is required to carry the narrative forward, in approximate alternation with the choir; it's a subordinate role, but demands effective diction and low-key sympathy with the plight of the damozel. These qualities were brought forward well in Friday's concert.

Even given the absence of any text in "Nocturnes," the ICC faced greater challenges of pitch and phrasing in that three-part masterpiece, the concluding movement of which depicts the islanded sirens of ancient legend, luring sailors off course at sea with their song. I had to set aside the fact that the erotic pull of the wordless chorus is basic to the ancient myth. Usually adult women are employed in this role, and here there were kids floating a seductive song high above the orchestra. This forces the listener to subscribe to a more abstract view of the peril the sirens pose. The children did their work well, save for occasional flatting.

In "Nocturnes" we see the revolutionary quality of Debussy more elaborately than even the iconic "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."  The opening movement — "Nuages" (Clouds) — is a landmark in new ways of musically evoking nature, especially how it looks and how it moves. The first minute of the piece lays out everything new in Debussy's harmonic language.

It's as strong a calling card as a slightly later piece that generated another branch of modernism, Schoenberg's "Summer Morning by a Lake/Colors" from Five Pieces for Orchestra. Both works announce: "Pay attention — the essence of my music is here all at once, almost like looking at a painting. Who needs 'development'? What rounds out the work beyond the first minute is just a necessary confirmation of what I'm all about." "Nuages" was gloriously played, keyed to Roger Roe's solo English horn.

The second movement — "Fetes" (Festivals) — presents another side of Debussy's mastery, much imitated by other composers. It showed how his new musical language could represent music of the street and social occasions at the cultural midpoint between folk music and art music. Rizzi sensitively guided the orchestra's weaving of a variegated tapestry of celebration.

The aforementioned finale — "Sirenes" (Sirens) — amazingly bests its "Nocturnes" companions. A work of genius in its pacing and its motivic use of melodic cells, this movement shows that even a harmonic framework with little in the way of resolution can give structure and momentum to a large-scale composition. The movement's swaying signature melody is transformed into some climaxes as convincing as anything in Late Romanticism, and the eventual subsiding of all this suspense becomes all the more impressive as the keynote is finally settled upon at the edge of silence. "Sirenes" is the fully worthy herald of "La Mer," an even greater work building on Debussy's discoveries in this one. The ISO and ICC account of it was thoroughly moving.

Two works by Ravel bookend the program, which will be repeated in full at 5:30 p.m. today.  "Le Tombeau de Couperin" made for an attractive appetizer, some blurriness in string articulation notwithstanding.  The winds sounded good: The springy angularity of the wind-instrument lines shone in "Forlane." The following "Menuet" was nicely phrased, though a bit slow. Principal oboist Jennifer Christen registered another winning solo outing in the contrasting section of the vigorous finale, "Rigaudon."

"La Valse," the more endurable of Ravel's two extended elaborations of a single rhythm (the less so being "Bolero") concluded the concert in captivating fashion — with a scary edge of mania. The latter quality is apparent from the low rumble with which it opens (I wonder if John Williams was thinking of this when he wrote the "Jaws" music that catapulted him to stardom as a film composer). Tempo shifts, including the broadening and little hesitations proper to the waltz idiom, were well-managed. The galvanic energy of the score's concluding pages was overwhelming.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Third Coast Percussion makes a hit with Ensemble Music audience at the Toby

There was everything from the raucous to the ethereal in Third Coast Percussion's concert Thursday night at the Indianapolis Museum of Art — offering more bang for the Ensemble Music buck.

With mallets aforethought: Third Coast Percussion played up a storm.
The Chicago-based quartet, currently enjoying a residency at the University of Notre Dame, played three substantial works in the simpatico setting of the Tobias Theater, whose wide, high stage allowed the ensemble's sounds to flower throughout the hall. Lighting was complementary, particularly in the concluding piece, Augusta Read Thomas' "Resounding Earth," which was written last year for the ensemble.

Three works were played by the versatile, dead-on-precise foursome of David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors. Thomas's celebration of bell sonorities occupied the second half, its four movements saturated with tintinnabulation, a cosmic and never darkening expansion of  Edgar Allan Poe's verse echo chamber.

Third Coast romped over its playground of rack-suspended percussion idiophones as the four-movement work unfolded, showing a characteristic delicacy of touch and timing accuracy. If the work seemed excessive by the time its omnium-gatherum finale rolled around — during which every one of the assembled 300-plus instruments was struck —  you could always enjoy taking in the play of performer-and-equipment shadows on the slanted proscenium wall. A pleasing theatrical touch ended "Resounding Earth": The four musicians came to the front of the stage, brightly lit as they sounded a solitary chord on the tubular bell each one held.

There was one ambitious masterpiece on the program. With pianists Daniel Schlosberg and Amy Briggs at a pair of Steinway grands, two members of Third Coast Percussion played George Crumb's "Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening." This 1974 work is the third in a piano-based series whose title puns on the the multivolume didactic monument "Mikrokosmos" by Bela Bartok, a substantial early influence on the composer.

"Makrokosmos III" showed the pianists fully attuned to each other and to the exposed, exaggerated dynamic range of their instruments, which the composer calls for to be amplified. The coordination with the percussionist pair was stunning and evocative of the host of spiritual scenarios Crumb lays out in the 35-minute composition.

Structurally, there are lots overlays in this music, as the composer's notes make clear, and yet the expressive impact is invariably univocal. It was that kind of performance that the four musicians presented. Even the one quotation Crumb inserts displays his emphasis on making form serve both sound and expressiveness. In the finale, the D-sharp minor fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume II is used for the subject's melodic poignancy; its fugal utility is pared away, as phrases sound with a distancing effect from sheets of paper placed over piano strings. (Similar distortion of piano sound, projected tellingly through amplification, plays a crucial role in the first two volumes of "Makrokosmos.")

The Bach episode is vital in putting a trace of historical context in the far-reaching "Music of the Starry Night" movement, the work's longest, which brings "Music for a Summer Evening" to an extenuated close. Coming after the quasi-primitive violence of "Myth," the preceding movement, this poised, deceptively fragile conclusion is wholly persuasive. Cast in different terms from a sound perspective, the music recalls the "farewell" gestures in Mahler.

John Cage's pioneering percussion-ensemble piece, "Third Construction," opened the show. And "show" doesn't seem to be a cheapened designation when such a virtuoso percussion group is onstage. The 1941 composition works rich changes of timbre into a nearly unvarying pulse. Crowning bursts of conch shell played a climactic role in a piece characterized by tuned drums and fragmentary scale patterns. Its gateway inclusion showed the long foreground of the independence percussion has attained, particularly as its foundational role in world music has become more familiar to classical audiences. The existence of such groups as Third Coast Percussion lends assurance to the thought that this young tradition can only become richer.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scouting Report: Some 20th-century composers considered as tennis players

In honor of Third Coast Percussion's appearance tonight in the Ensemble Music season at the IMA's Tobias Theater,  I've revived for the blog a piece I wrote for fun years ago, blending my interests in music and tennis.
Arnold Schoenberg (left) after a mixed-doubles match
Two of the composers on tonight's program are among those covered in this gently satirical flight of fancy:

John Cage

Said to prefer playing with the net down.  Willing, even eager, to take chances — a real scrambler. Sometimes a crowd-pleaser, despite a tendency to forget the rules, or devise his own. May follow a weak second serve to the net just to see what will happen.  His strokes look ungainly, though he is apt to return any ball hit in or out of court.  Also a canny doubles player. Has intense interest in racket vibration dampeners.

Igor Stravinsky

Never uses the same game plan twice. Thorough knowledge of the game allows him to turn any opponent's style to his advantage. Always knows precisely where he is on court and what shot a given situation requires.  Hits well to corners and lines. Likes to establish a repetitive pattern during rallies, then suddenly shift out of it with a well-disguised contrasting shot. Apt to question competence of officials.

Charles Ives

Relies overmuch on a stinging forehand drive. Tries to hide a weak backhand by running around to use a forehand stroke, leaving much of the court wide open. Lightning reflexes make him quick at the net to either side. Can be beaten by being forced into long rallies, during which he tends to lose concentration and get trapped out of position. Fond of attempting novelty shots, mainly dangerous side-spin returns from deep in the court and showy behind-the-back volleys. Unnerves opponents by whistling old tunes from time to time. Said to be lost when he can't apply his father's coaching to a situation.

George Crumb

A very mysterious player, able to pull off well-disguised placements without seeming to expend much effort. Has a vast repertoire of "dink" shots — spins, slices, drops.  Never questions a bad call. Double-faults frequently.  Often mutters to himself in Spanish.

Elliott Carter

Has a finely tuned ability to control the pace of a game. Mixes up speeds on his serve to keep opponent off-guard. Excellent at chasing down "impossible" shots and working his way out of defensive positions, always keeping good form.  Though not a show-off, has a flair for the dramatic. His elegant game flourishes in close, tense matches with lots of complicated exchanges.

Carl Ruggles

Fine overhead smash, but often powered out of court. His ground strokes are hard and relentless. Though fast, his serve is flat and predictable. He can be frustrated when encountering a game dependent on delicacy of touch. Sometimes temperamental during play. A sore loser.

Arnold Schoenberg

Dazzling command of tennis technique: His forehand and backhand alike can be devastating both down the line and cross-court. Has a tricky spin serve. Ability to mount a successful game plan is phenomenal, and few can crack his concentration. Plays best when the crowd is against him.

Aaron Copland

Court coverage is swift and fluid. Affects a no-nonsense serve-and-volley style, but can toy skillfully with an opponent, using a combination of lobs and drop shots. Serve is powerful but erratic. Once at the net, he can angle away anything he reaches.  Affable and straightforward, a gallery favorite of both connoisseurs and newcomers to the game.

Michael Tippett

With his deep back swing and early committed stance, he tends to signal his shots, counting too much on his imposing stature and sheer ambition to carry the day. Sometimes awkward footwork makes him vulnerable in long rallies. At his best when he can play out a point down the center of the court, hitting topspin drives from the baseline until the opportunity for a strong approach shot presents itself. His all-or-nothing strategy often lets him down.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Remembering John Tavener, without tears: Does the music have anything to say if you're not in his camp?

To the Worshipful Company of Taven(idolat)ers:

I respect your impulse to mourn the passing of John Tavener.  So, out of respect to musicians I admire who are currently honoring his memory,  I have been listening again to the tiny part of my CD collection devoted to his music.

John Tavener (1944-2013)
And I am coming up empty.  I find it nearly impossible to listen to a Tavener piece without my mind wandering.  An honest music-lover would admit to that happening from time to time even when hearing music one enjoys.  But the challenge of Tavener's compositions is to train your attention on his procedure and keep it there:  its non-developmental nature, its devotional import, its silences and stasis, its simple-minded phrasing.  I wonder how long such training takes, and whether it is worth it, and whether it has anything to do with music.

Any worthwhile music asks the listener to meet the composer halfway. That's a cliche, and to say "halfway" is an arbitrary way of stating the listener's need to extend himself and set aside prejudices and premonitions about unfamiliar music. But the deal Tavener offers seems deceptive: It's as if an apartment-seeker were looking among "furnished apartments" only to get to Landlord Tavener's place to find the rooms devoid of furniture.  "Well, there is a ceiling light," the rental agent might say.

The "furnished apartment" analogy, with music one comes to love, means there is an attractive "package" involving the view, the painted walls, a functional kitchen and other amenities, a few apt places to sit, etc. If you move in (i.e., come to love and revisit the music), you can put your personal stamp on the place: rearrange the furniture, add a new piece or two, complement the environment with plants or pictures. That is comparable to what each music-lover brings to the experience so that a previously unfamiliar work speaks to him and finds a place in his storehouse of treasurable music.

With Tavener, the flat stays empty.  There continues to be nothing there; the tenant is welcome to stretch out on the floor, staring up at that ceiling light, perhaps, until sleep overcomes him.

What Tavener's music seems to require in order to stay awake to it is training yourself to achieve the meditative state — preferably with appropriate Orthodox theology and liturgy to support it — necessary to find the music enthralling.  It's true there is variety as an expansive Tavener piece unfolds, but it's probably beyond the reach of anyone but adepts to integrate such shifts in timbre and volume into a musical, rather than meditative, wholeness.

I'll readily acknowledge there's more "incident" in "The Hidden Treasure" (Tavener's 1989 string quartet, which lasts more than a half-hour) than in such a monument of minimalism as, say, Steve Reich's "Four Organs."  Yet I find "Four Organs" more interesting than "The Hidden Treasure," or "The Last Sleep of the Virgin" (add hand bells to the string quartet) or any number of Tavener's choral works.

I suspect that Tavener, led by his personal spiritual journey, became so keen on erecting monuments to it that his compositions had to demand the listener replicate the journey to some degree. And I'm uncomfortable being under the watchful  gaze of a spiritual sergeant-at-arms.

That brings up the question: If I'm to get to the mental state of focusing on holy matters with the intensity Tavener seems to insist upon, do I still need music at all? At that point, music should fall away, along with all other worldly pleasures, if the atmosphere implied by Tavener's music is to be fully breathed in and out.

Some years ago, another British composer, Thomas Ades, was taken to task for a brutal quip about Tavener's art, calling it "totally bogus" and "akin to dog psychiatry." As funny as that is, it comes close to saying Tavener was an insincere composer.  I won't go there; I hate to question the sincerity of creative artists — as creative artists, that is.  They may be insincere in other matters, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they really mean what they appear to mean.  But then, I also remember Oscar Wilde's dictum: "All bad poetry is sincere."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Di Wu returns to the Carmel Symphony Orchestra for the third time

Deeply rooted acquaintance with rising stars can pay off in ongoing collaborations that might not have happened if somebody hadn't gotten in on the ground floor. David Bowden continues to benefit from getting to know Di Wu shortly after she made her first splash in this hemisphere by winning the Hilton Head International Piano Competition in 2005.

So the Chinese native's growing prominence internationally is apparently no obstacle to her re-engagement with the orchestras Bowden conducts, most recently the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, with which she appeared as guest artist for the third time Saturday night at the Palladium.

She gave extra brilliance to both halves of the program, her fashion consciousness showing as well in striking dresses that suited each of the two composers she played. Before intermission she performed George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations. The American songwriter's last concert piece expounds on the popularity of the tune that has been subjected to countless variations and recompositions by jazzmen in particular. And it's presumed that when Gershwin set down this extended work, he was capturing the flights of fancy he typically subjected the famous song to at parties: If there was a piano in the room, George would make a dash for the bench.

The 29-year-old soloist showed herself a 21st-century artist by having the notes in front of her on a tablet instead of the printed page. Her performance Saturday had the authentic Gershwin spirit. She wholeheartedly characterized each distinctive tweaking of the tune, seconding the timbral and textural cues placed throughout the orchestration. The performance had a remarkable degree of unity, considering the shifts of rhythm and tempo that give the score its steeplechase quality.

Di Wu played music by Liszt and Gershwin in her third Carmel appearance.
The standard work Wu played with the CSO was Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, capping an all-Liszt second half. The storminess of the first and fourth linked movements was stunningly replicated, and the delicate wit of the third-movement scherzo showed the charming aspect of Wu's capability. I found the "Quasi adagio" second movement a bit ordinary expressively, though of course nothing at all clumsy got in the way of an interpretation brimming with spirit. Bowden led a nimble and, when the occasion warranted, vehement accompaniment.

For an encore, Wu offered a brilliant account of Debussy's "Feux d'artifices," the encore (she announced) that she had played in her first Carmel Symphony Orchestra appearance nearly three years ago. Wu has panache to spare, and it's likely her artistic horizons are as wide as can be as she develops further.

The orchestra performed creditably on its own, showing it could be captivating even without as attractive a soloist as Wu. Liszt's "Les Preludes," familiar to many radio listeners of old as the theme of radio broadcasts from the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, received a handsome performance. In rapid passages a more robust violin and viola sound was needed, but all the strings played sweetly in the piece's calmer moments. Brass and percussion came through brightly in repeated moments of assertive splendor.

Two rarely heard gems opened the concert. Offenbach's Overture to "La Belle Helene" made for a saucy curtain-raiser, rife with light sentimentality and pert energy.  It whetted the appetite for another colorful obscurity, George Whitefield Chadwick's "Vagrom Ballad," one of four Symphonic Sketches the once well-regarded American composer wrote. A portrait of rail-riding vagrancy and the bygone entertainments it inspired, it elicited from the orchestra adept soloing, mainly from bass clarinetist Terri Cassel, and remarkably detailed shifts of focus as the quirky, episodic sketch moved toward its bustling conclusion.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Northminster Presybterian Church brings choral bloom to CTS's Sweeney Chapel

The resonant acoustics of Sweeney Chapel suited the program.
Amid so much joyous music, it may sound a little perverse to say I was particularly excited to hear William Schuman's "Carols of Death" in a concert Friday night by Northminster Presbyterian Church's Chancel Choir and Chamber Ensemble.

The environment of Sweeney Chapel at Christian Theological Seminary was ideal for most of the pieces John Wright programmed for his two choirs, and especially suitable for the well-knit lines and piercing harmonies of the Schuman work.

The a cappella setting of poetry by Walt Whitman, imbued with the poet's mystical embrace of death, is oddly life-affirming in Schuman's vivid setting.  The harmonies posed for well-trained choral voices are assertive, keenly placed and given a momentum that adds up to a thrilling experience. It was a good test of the 11-voice Chamber Ensemble, which was fit for the challenge.

Whitman's boldness of statement, even when expressing apprehension at the mystery of death that lies before all of us, is both underlined and made to seem hard-won by Schuman's music.  The first carol, "The Last Invocation," rises with effort to the line, "Strong is your hold, O Love," which was sung gloriously by the choir.  I was impressed by the singers' pitch security and the fullness of their phrasing, which made especially moving the gentle conclusion of the third carol: "In the day, in the night, to all, to each,/Sooner or later, delicate death."

The Schuman work was significantly placed third following two poised examples of Renaissance polyphony, Hieronymus Praetorius'  "O vos omnes" and Palestrina's "Sicut cervus." Both illustrated in advance the skill needed to place the piquant harmonies of the Schuman accurately. The Renaissance masters similarly challenged choristers to produce a consistently pure tone and linked phrases, and they came through handsomely.

Performed without intermission, the program had a rewarding degree of variety. It moved to modern settings of ancient texts to illustrate the ongoing applicability of sacred words to latter-day sensibilities. And the use of hymns in newer arrangements led naturally to a final section of folk songs (two selections from the cornucopia of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker arrangements) and spirituals.

There was plenty of buoyancy in Moses Hogan's settings of "The Battle of Jericho" and "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," with call-and-response sections used climactically and, in the former, "bent" notes judiciously applied to mimic the "tumbling down" of Jericho's walls. Another Hogan arrangement, "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me," showcased a gleaming soprano solo. A more flamboyant spiritual style, that of the influential choral director William Dawson, presented an apt contrast in "Ezekiel Saw de Wheel," complete with the echoic whirring of the wheels "way up in the middle of the air."

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is used to filling big spaces with straightforward music. Director Mack Wilberg's eloquent "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" had a colorful accompaniment, with Marko Petricic at the piano and obbligato by two flutes. Petricic's organ skills were brought into play accompanying Louis Vierne's "Kyrie eleison" and Frank Boles' "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending," both compositions of fervor and perhaps too much spectacle for the space they nearly overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, such works illustrated well the program's breadth and the choirs'  flexibility. It was a pleasure to hear again a modern "Ave Maria" (by the German composer Franz Biebl) that is best-known as sung by the San Francisco vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The Northminster men worked wonders with the piece; indeed, they were off their game in the concert only once, as off-pitch singing in the second stanza marred the Chamber Ensemble's performance of the Shaw-Parker "His Voice as the Sound."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

James Galway brings his puckish Irish charm to the Palladium

James Galway played 3 solo encores after filling concert's first half in the spotlight
The golden flute of James Galway brings more than musical riches to musicians he travels with, because it's a certainty the Irish Chamber Orchestra wouldn't have the kind of tour it's now on without a marquee soloist who's an Emerald Isle native to boot.

Galway, his flutist wife Jeanne, and the Irish ensemble (conducted by JoAnn Falletta) drew a huge crowd to the Palladium Wednesday night.

It's certain that Sir James' elfin humor is part of the atttraction, and there's undoubtedly plenty of shtick brought into play at this point to supplement his undeniable musical gifts. Galway, who turns 74 next month, is a showman with a twinkly personality, in addition to being a superlative flutist.

Galway played with panache the character piece "In Ireland" by Hamilton Harty by way of introduction. Then he moved through Mozart, choosing the attractive but less characteristic of the Austrian master's two flute concertos. It was the one in D major, the composer's transcription (moved a whole step higher) of the Oboe Concerto, the form in which it still sounds better to me, despite the flair that Galway brought to the solo part.

His wife, Jeanne, joined him onstage for a new work, fashioned for the duo and string orchestra from the original by Philip Hammond — like Galway, a native of Northern Ireland.

"Carolan Variations" uses two traditional Irish tunes, the second one associated with the 18th-century blind harper Turlough O'Carolan. The work is flowing, then sprightly, calculated to make the most of the accessible charm of the solo couple, with the accompaniment serving that end exclusively. It was a pleasant  showcase, followed by an encore featuring both Galways: an arrangement of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo."

Since Sir James is the obvious superstar of the couple, he returned for three solo encores, with "Danny Boy" drawing the most sighs, and the "Badinerie" from J.S. Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 2 in B minor getting gasps of amazement at the soloist's nimble articulation, with no sacrifice of his characteristically warm tone.

It was hard to get a firm notion of the Irish Chamber Orchestra's quality in the first half, so focused was it on the Galway substance and aura. That favorable impression turned out to be well worth waiting for, as Falletta led a persuasive account of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor ("Scottish").

The ensemble may not be the last word in machine-tooled precision, but its focused cohesion was never in doubt. The orchestra produces a warm tone, with excellent wind playing well-integrated with the strings. Nothing was taken for granted in the performance, with transitional material as carefully fashioned as the symphony's many catchy tunes. The concert's second half made the Irish Chamber Orchestra's visit as memorable as the rare local appearance by its star soloist.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A French painter's artistic breadth drives the collaborative start to Ronen Chamber Ensemble's 30th season

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) made some of the grandest, most detailed paintings of French romanticism, yet he often took up the cudgels for simplicity in art.  He deplored showy complexity and grandstanding.

Eugene Delacroix, who knew what he liked.
A devotee of music and a friend of Chopin in Paris of the 1840s, Delacroix in his fascinating journal casts scorn upon Berlioz and Meyerbeer, major figures in the French capital,  and holds up as exemplary the music of Mozart and (up to a point) Beethoven.

 "The so-called geniuses of the present day are nothing but the ghosts of earlier writers, painters, and musicians," he wrote in 1855. "Full of affectations and absurdity, their bad taste matches their pretentiousness."

Ronen Chamber Ensemble collaborated with the Faculty Artist series at the University of Indianapolis Monday night on a program called "From the Journal of Delacroix."  Musical selections, generally excerpted from longer works, came from the world that the artist knew and approved of. Slides of his art were projected on a screen to one side of the Lilly Performance Hall stage at UIndy's DeHaan Center.

Narration to set the artist and his viewpoints in context was provided by soprano and vocal faculty member Kathleen Hacker and local actor Noah Winston.

As Winston told the audience, Delacroix was particularly fond of Domenico Cimarosa, composer of the occasionally still revived comic opera, "The Secret Marriage." "Such perfection is rarely found among the works of man," the painter asserted in his journal. Hacker gave a charming performance of the aria "Perdonato, signor mio," with Gregory Martin at the piano.

As a diarist, Delacroix took umbrage at others' stinging viewpoints, particularly when they attacked something he held dear. Of a conversationalist who called Cimarosa "an old fossil," Delacroix the diarist sputtered: "I hate men like this. And most of all I hate this pretense of candor that allows people to give vent to trenchant or wounding opinions."

Some of the following may come close to wounding, despite my general satisfaction with the program.  I will press ahead, haunted by the program honoree's anticipatory indignation. Winston, a capable actor, ought to have been better prepared: No stumbles when reading a text in front of him should have occurred, especially considering that he rose to the expressive occasion from time to time. Martin's appearance throughout the program gave ample opportunity to appreciate his collegial qualities, but the accompaniments could have been livelier and more colorfully characterized.

In the concert finale, David Bellman made up for a rare departure from his usual impeccable playing in a movement from Donizetti's Concertino in B-flat for Clarinet and Piano, which opened the program.  The concluding piece was Sesto's aria from "La Clemenza di Tito," the opera seria Mozart wrote in his last year, with its remarkable clarinet obbligato.   Bellman complemented Hacker's brief immersion in "my first pants role" with aplomb in some of Mozart's best writing for the instrument (outside the Clarinet Concerto and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings).

Another program highlight was Ronen co-founder Ingrid Fischer-Bellman's tender playing of the "Largo" movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata, one of his few ventures beyond his imperishable contributions to the solo piano repertoire.

Kudos to this collaborative concert for shedding more light on a major figure that concertgoers in particular may not know well. It's always interesting to dig beneath the cliches of the Romantic temperament.  Who, for example, is likely to suspect that the creator of "The Death of Sardanapalus" and "Liberty Leading the People" also confided to his diary such a pure expression of the Enlightenment as this?:

"The greatest genius is simply a superlatively rational human being."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Alexander Schimpf puts a new piece in the middle of a Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven recital

Alexander Schimpf, a 32-year-old German pianist whose ascending career received a big boost with his victory in the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition, played a recital for the American Pianists Association Sunday afternoon, launching its "Grand Encounters" series in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler University.

His program focused on composers central to his cultural homeland's legacy — Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven — with the refreshing exception of a world premiere: "Lepesben" (Strides), five marches for piano by Andras Hamary, a Hungarian composer born in 1950.

Alexander Schimpf  opened "Grand  Encounters" Sunday.
From the opening work, Schubert's Sonata in A minor, D. 784, Schimpf's special qualities were clear. He has the patience needed for Schubert, a feeling for the music's extenuated interior drama, its startling contrasts of tone and dynamics. His instinct for momentary silences was unfailingly apt. Abrupt shifts of color and texture characteristic of the composer's great sonatas seemed logical and cunningly well-prepared in Schimpf's hands.

Late Brahms brought the recital up to intermission. Piano Pieces, op. 119, had a breadth of feeling in Schimpf's interpretation, putting the three intermezzi and the Rhapsody in E-flat major each in its distinctive world. I was particularly taken with the restless lyricism of the Intermezzo in E minor, which had an authentically Lieder-like quality of expression, and the concluding Rhapsody, which Schimpf made buoyant and vigorous throughout, somehow letting plenty of air into the music's dense texture.

Hamary's new piece puts the march concept through a remarkable series of 21st-century paces. Schimpf's oral program notes contributed immeasurably to an informed reception of the work.  Of course, the proof in this pudding is what happens musically:  Hamary's work is richly inspired, broadly balanced between parodistic and dead-serious. On first hearing, it took the listener through vivid evocations of war's violence, the association of marches with death (both the funeral-march tradition and the use of marches to exhilarate future cannon fodder and their kin)  and the form's invitation to humor and high spirits.

The "Tin Soldiers" movement challenged Schimpf to move two strains of march music in and out of synchronization, which he did with clarity and wit.  The wide registral leaps of "Parade" and its slowly decaying chords (produced by the selective resonance of the middle pedal) ventured into less playful humor —  something darkly post-Shostakovichian. The set concluded by juxtaposing the odd allure of marches in their entertaining and brutal aspects alike. Heavy-metal thunder and boogie-woogie were brought into play in the course of Schimpf's assured performance of "Double-Quick," with polish and abandon adroitly blended.

The recital concluded with Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, op. 111, in a breathtaking performance that elicited a poised encore, a sober yet piquantly harmonized transcription of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze."

So lofty is the reputation of late Beethoven that a prominent early-20th-century American music critic put Opus 111 on a higher plane than mere piano music. Henry E. Krehbiel wrote that Beethoven's last sonata "discourses music rather than the charms of pianoforte sound." (Krehbiel, by the way, was an incredibly capable, if arrogant, figure: One of his more unusual accomplishments — of particular interest to Hoosiers — was helping Benjamin Harrison locate the missing corpse of the future president's father in the dissecting room of a Cincinnati medical school.)

One hesitates to dissent from a Krehbiel opinion even slightly; certainly his contemporaries dared it at their peril. But Schimpf indicated Sunday that the instrument's characteristic charms can indeed play a significant role in putting across this rarefied music. Beethoven's unusual handling of theme-and-variations form holds the attention  in the "Arietta" movement. In this performance, however, it was the shimmering intensity,  the enveloping sonority, the evenness of touch (with those persistent trills) that enthralled the audience on the way to the hushed final bars.

Fluent in German, the pontificating Krehbiel is likely to have resisted the obvious pun that can be made on the recitalist's name. As a lesser critic, I will hazard it, but only in praise: When Schimpf plays as well as he did here Sunday afternoon, kein Schimpfwort gilt (no scornful word applies).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Owl Music Group presents a concert showcase of its new eclectic reach

The transition of Owl Studios to something other than a boutique jazz label is a slow process requiring, in the view of proprietors Kenny Phelps and Bill Mallers, its reinvention as a community resource with charitable appearances in culturally underserved neighborhoods.

That is being wedded to artistic outreach to musical expressions on the edge of jazz and beyond, which seemed to be the point of the "Owl Music Group Showcase" Saturday night at the Indiana History Center.
Steve Allee solos in "Dragonfly" Saturday night.The bassist is Jesse Wittman.

As vocalist Pam Westbrook put it  with gusto in the opening number: "Jazz ain't nothin' but soul." If "soul" (that desirable, undefinable quality) is present, everything essential about jazz is there as well, according to this expansive view. So, restrictive definitions need not apply when it comes to the new orientation of the not-for-profit organization that Phelps and Mallers are building upon the brand and catalogue they acquired last year from J. Allan Hall, who founded Owl Studios in 2005.

Held back from OMG's activity for the time being is getting artists into the  recording studio.  Licensing the independently produced products of local musicians and keeping the Owl Studios catalogue alive are the twin focuses now, Mallers told me at intermission.

Some historical context was neatly provided early in the show by keyboardist Kevin Anker in introducing his tribute to the late Melvin Rhyne, one of the last surviving mainstays of the Indiana Avenue heyday until his death last March.  Then Anker sat down at a compact electronic instrument to pay tribute to Rhyne's organ style in "Chitlins Con Carne."

He launched it with a moody unaccompanied cadenza before leading the band into the soulful theme. Good work was turned in in the course of the performance by tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught, guitarist Joel Tucker and Anker himself. Phelps played drums with his usual impeccable sense of style, and indeed was behind the kit throughout the evening — busy and energized.

Another key figure in current Indianapolis jazz also showed his range, particularly after intermission, when pianist Steve Allee led a six-tune set, two-thirds of it devoted to his own compositions. A funky original, "Hip Factor," was enthusiastically laid out by a group including bass guitarist Deron Bell and keyboardist Jay Thomas, in addition to the dependable Tucker, Faught and Phelps.

The jaunty tune is one of the highlights on Allee's 2008 Owl Studios release, "Dragonfly."  That excellent disc's title song also got a welcome outing Saturday, with Jesse Wittman on acoustic bass taking a resonant, imaginative solo. I enjoyed as well getting reacquainted with "Pure Spirit" from Allee's "Colors" (Owl Studios, 2007).

Also striking was the smooth, well-phrased crooning of Brian Kelly during that set, performing "I Just Called to Say I Love You." It was a welcome return appearance by a stylish singer who had done so well before intermission on the evergreen "It Had to Be You."

Jennie DeVoe emceed and sang, and other featured vocalists before the finale included adept pianist-singer-songwriter Sarah Scharbrough, the crowd-pleasing Valerie Phelps and solo gospel virtuoso Brian Reeves.

The continuation of the Owl Studios project under another name and with somewhat shifted purposes is a hopeful sign of the health of creative music-making here. Saturday's showcase concert was a milestone along the way.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mario Venzago's much-anticipated return to the ISO was worth waiting for, but why did we have to?

Standing ovations have become all too automatic at the end of performances, and they are sometimes oddly brief.

So it was a mark of special regard that the audience at Friday night's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert was on its feet applauding Mario Venzago at both beginning and end. The sustained ovations rang the rafters of Hilbert Circle Theatre at a level seldom heard there, laced with whoops, whistles and cheering.
Mario Venzago never seems to conduct a meaningless phrase.

The ISO's sixth music director (2002-2009) is in town this weekend to conduct the ensemble for the first time since before negotiations on a new contract broke down, apparently as the result of the previous administration's refusal to respond to Venzago's proposals to extend his stay at the artistic helm of the 83-year-old orchestra.

The program of music by Glazunov, Mahler and Schumann was capped by a private champagne party in  the Wood Room to unveil a new portrait of the 65-year-old Swiss conductor. Supported by a special fund-raising campaign, the painting soon will join other portraits of the ISO's former music directors in the extended second-floor lobby.

What is special about the way Venzago makes music? Is the evident rapport he has with both concertgoers and ISO musicians more than a matter of personal warmth and amiability?  It certainly seems so, as well-stocked in those qualities as Venzago clearly is.

I could start with the encore, which Venzago charmingly introduced, sketching in the heart-rending scenario that the composer fleshed out in purely instrumental terms.  The piece is Sibelius' "Valse triste," which was also the encore of a concert about a month ago marking a much sadder milestone for an American symphony orchestra. It was the work Osmo Vanska chose by his Finnish countryman at the conclusion of an "unofficial" Minnesota Orchestra concert —  a farewell tribute to an organization Vanska had raised to a new artistic level, many commentators agree, before a continuing yearlong lockout prompted the music director's resignation and jeopardized that ensemble's future.

Vanska led an elegiac performance — an understandable emphasis, given the occasion. Though it might be slightly unfair to compare live streaming audio to a concert performance, what distinguished Venzago's interpretation is that it was so multifaceted. It had drama, color and a chiaroscuro of feeling. Phrasing was shapely and imbued with the backstory's intimacy and sense of irretrievable loss. The way the ISO played it Friday night, you could live in the little, closed-in world of this composition for several minutes gladly, despite its gloomy cast.

The concert opened with Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), an early work by Mahler that survived his creative self-censorship to be repurposed as the first movement of Symphony No. 2 in D minor ("Resurrection").  That work, with its choral finale, has moved audiences to tears or had them virtually levitating by its final pages.

Totenfeier takes a more straightforward approach to the funeral march, declining to drum the deceased so tragically into the grave. The contrasting material — of consolation and eternal rest (what Venzago terms "angel music") and of wild fits of grieving and protest — is aligned with the march as a way of filling in the picture. Attitudinizing about death is far from Mahler's concept, as Venzago understands it and communicated it to us through the orchestra.

When I interviewed Venzago Thursday, he several times described Totenfeier as a very naive piece. As I listened to it Friday night, it was hard to understand how the negative connotations that readily attach to the word "naive" might fit what sounded like a well-crafted piece, far from simple in its orchestration. Any derivativeness that clings to it is learned in its Brucknerian expansiveness, its Lisztian gestural thrust and its woodsy, mystical snatches of melody (evoking somewhat the "Forest Murmurs" of Wagner's "Siegfried"). Where's the naivete?

Then it dawned on me that Venzago, drawing upon his deep German culture, was using the word in the manner of Friedrich Schiller, whose "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" (1795) is one of the great essays in Romanticism, and almost certainly known to Venzago.  To Schiller, whose idealism is most familiar to posterity through Beethoven's use of "An die Freude" in the Ninth Symphony, naive attraction in art is based upon nature (rocks and lightning as well as trees and foxes), children, farmers and shepherds. It generates unself-conscious, not self-divided, art.

Culture inevitably moves art to a self-conscious stage full of inner conflicts — not a tragic development, as Schiller sees it, because it provides the tools to move once again to unity. "The goal toward which man strives by means of infinitely higher than that which he reaches by means of nature," Schiller writes.

Portrait of Venzago by Uwe Grabner.
Mahler, those who know his music well must realize, created much of his magnificent art as a "sentimental" artist, though aspiring quite explicitly to the Schillerian goal in the second, third, fourth and eighth symphonies. And, judging from the way Venzago and the ISO performed Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, the seriously self-divided Schumann was in a sense trapped on the sentimental side. Any aspiration to move beyond was seriously undercut by his conflicted  temperament.

Venzago's penchant for flexibility of tempo, for phrases that breathe in sync with the arcs they trace, was fully in evidence here, starting with the first movement.  The reverie aspect of Schumann was indulged with a lovely sense of color in the second movement. Quite convincingly, a really regular pulse didn't emerge till the main section of the Scherzo. The Trio just floated, however, and the composer's self-description as the contrasting characters of Florestan (emotion) and Eusebius (reason) couldn't have been clearer in this movement. The finale found new ways to be exciting without locking into the rip-roaring manner sometimes heard in performances of the Schumann Fourth, as if the torrential coda were the whole point of the piece.

For this weekend's concerts, the guest soloist was hired before Venzago, so the former music director  had no part in the selection of Vadim Gluzman, a concert violinist who has made a good impression here in the past, or the work that featured him, Alexander Glazunov's Concerto in A minor, op. 82.  You would never know that from the smooth way they worked together. The three connected movements found the new partnership both durable and flexible.

Venzago's sensitivity to tempo fluctuation suited Gluzman's free, almost offhand interpretation well, especially in the first two movements, with their abundance of sweets and daydreams.  The robust finale, given backbone immediately with a brassy fanfare, had plenty of bounce and character. Gluzman seemed much more at home in this idiom than he did in the Bach encore he offered, which he played in a precious, overinflected style.

It was hard to leave a concert with so much of the miraculous about it and suppress the feeling that in 2009 the ISO threw away a chance to ascend to greatness. A talented tyro with insights of his own has succeeded Venzago, but the indelible feeling of brothers-in-arms (OK, siblings-in-arms) and the impress of significance in every phrase sounded by this orchestra under Venzago's baton are signs of  lost opportunity. Some regular involvement by this maestro in the ISO's future may compensate for such a loss, but only partially. Too much is irrecoverable, and time only goes in one direction.