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.

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