ISO musically conquers Europe's storied mountain range to launch the Strauss sesquicentennial

It's little wonder that "An Alpine Symphony" doesn't come up often on symphony orchestra programs. The huge forces Richard Strauss calls for militate against busting the budget to program the 50-minute work.

And, frankly, descriptive music so elaborate does not enjoy the greatest prestige among music-lovers. Yet perhaps the huge body of evocative film music composed since the work's premiere in 1915 contributes to "An Alpine Symphony"'s favorable reception on the rare occasions it's performed.

Another unspoken obstacle: If you want to worship nature in symphonic music, you've got to be more explicit about the spiritual payoff, as in several symphonies by the composer's contemporary, Gustav Mahler. Strauss (1864-1949) simply applies his genius at orchestration to a day in the Alps, devoid of resonance any larger than one man's encounter with a mountain. But what resonance that is!

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches for the summit with Strauss.
At any rate,  it won't raise eyebrows that this masterpiece (there, I've said it!) was performed for only the first time in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 83-year history Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Krzysztof Urbanski, returning to the podium for the first time since November, crowned his first program of the New Year with a stimulating interpretation, grandly picturesque and balanced between the polarities of natural phenomena both large and small.

Urbanski has declared his love for scores of majestic sweep and stunning deployment of the full orchestra, and nothing fills the bill better than the "Alpine."  Yet you could be forgiven for wondering if he programmed the work mainly because its emotional center, the episode that depicts reaching the summit, features a rapturous oboe solo. That would mean it would be more than adequately played by the first principal Urbanski has hired, Jennifer Christen. And that was true Friday night, the solo heralding the brassy outburst that fills out the rest of Strauss' summitry.

The 22 divisions of the uninterrupted tone poem were signaled by words (Straussian subtitles) projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage terrace. That way everyone knew — to mention one hard-to-detect example —  just when "Wandering by the Brook" yielded to the splashes of "At the Waterfall," and when that passage enfolded a legendary "Apparition."

Other highlights: the grippingly entangled "Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Way" passage, among several fine displays of the expanded horn section; the lush mystery of the massed strings at "Entry into the Forest"; the imitation of staying on one's feet while crossing ice by bassoons and horns during "Dangerous Moments";  the tense, lovely wind colors that precede the spectacular storm depiction heightened the tension. The return of "Night" in the final measures provided a needed sense of relief, as well as asserting the removal of human action from nature's realm. As we are learning today rather alarmingly with the apparent effects of climate change, nature is still boss.

Dejan Lazic evinced his mastery of Liszt with the ISO.
The distorted human realm of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" drew from Edvard Grieg incidental music not fully adequate to the poet-playwright's bizarre vision of a rogue's adventures. But it's so thoroughly charming that two "Peer Gynt" suites have been embraced by concert audiences for many decades. Urbanski opened the concert with "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1.  Particularly successful were the logical, detailed dynamic shifts in "Aase's Death" and the vivid counterpoint of bowed and plucked strings in "Anitra's Dance."  The finale, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," after an awkward, unbalanced start, quickly gained cohesiveness and menacing strength as it accelerated to a scary conclusion.

That convulsion of frightfulness set the stage for a performance of Franz Liszt's compact mini-concerto "Totentanz."  The German title is usually left untranslated, but the music alone delivers all we need to imagine of what a "Dance of Death" should sound like. Liszt apotheosizes the medieval chant "Dies irae" in this intense, florid set of variations for piano and orchestra. Throughout a quarter-hour of palpable, well-regulated horror, there was substantial rapport between Urbanski and guest soloist Dejan Lazic, a formidable Croatian pianist now living in Amsterdam.

For an encore, Lazic moved toward the serene, contemplative side of Liszt, his reworking of the tune "Gondoliera" from the Italian volume of "Years of Pilgrimage."  In both aspects of the protean composer, Lazic proved more than adept. He offered  impressive displays of agility, crisp articulation, haunting charm and an inexhaustible supply of sheer power.


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