Saturday, January 18, 2014

Principal oboist gets concerto showcase at ISO's first Classical Series concert since November

Jennifer Christen performed Mozart's oboe concerto with ISO.
No Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra first-chair player within memory have I so looked forward to hearing in a concerto as Jennifer Christen, the oboist hired as principal in 2012.  Acquaintance with her abilities was delayed somewhat by the lockout in the fall of that year, but there's been ample opportunity since to enjoy her floating, pristine sound in the many oboe solos that dot the symphonic repertoire.

In this weekend's shortened shortened schedule (just the Coffee Concert Thursday and Friday evening's performance, reviewed here), Australian conductor Daniel Smith made his ISO debut as well.

To savor the skills and artistry of two excellent musicians under 30 in the same concert was most heartening.

But first, a consideration of Christen's performance of Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C major. With excellent support from Smith and her ISO colleagues, she gave a winning performance of a work also known in its D-major transcription (by the composer) for flute. I prefer the oboe version in part because the single-reed instrument's timbre suits what I hear as the comic flair of this music.

And the way Christen played it was revelatory: The first movement provided her with an immediately impressive showcase — well-articulated and subtly ornamented, with echo phrases dialed back slightly in dynamic level. Her cadenzas and fermatas throughout were nicely balanced between virtuosity and gracefulness. The lovely melody of the slow movement was admirably sustained and tender, and the finale found the soloist's playing effervescent, full of wit and energy.

Smith's sensitivity as an accompanist was complemented by the showcase performances he elicited from the orchestra in two well-known works:  Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral"). The predominantly festive mood of the Dvorak achieved a high level of sizzle from the start, and the contrasting romantic interlude featured fine solos from associate concertmaster Philip Palermo and English-horn player Timothy Clinch.

What was a more amazing exhibition of Smith's skills came after intermission, with an expansive, airy interpretation of the Pastoral Symphony. You could feel the open-air breezes in the swelling phrases of the first movement, Beethoven's introduction to the country scenes he was inspired by but had no intention of depicting literally. Smith drew from the orchestra a lilting forward momentum there and in the "scene by the brook" that makes up the second movement.

He stirred up lots of rustic energy in whipping along the country dancing of the third movement. The feeling was earthy without ever becoming coarse. The fourth-movement storm was as intense as and even scarier than the violent perturbations of later compositions with the benefit of technical advances in instruments and vaster panoplies of percussion.

Timpanist Jack Brennan deserves kudos for providing assertive, spot-on thunder, which forms the stormy backbone of the fourth movement before the finale applies balm to the ruffled feelings of the country folk and arouses their pious gratitude. Apart from mushy passagework in the cellos at one point, the neat flow of the finale progressed unimpeded.

A notable boon to assistant principal oboist Roger Roe from Christen's conventionally mandated absence from the rest of the program was his getting the symphony's abundant first-chair solos. He helped make the evening a spectacle of double-reed glory.


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