Saturday, March 1, 2014

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Polish maestro draws on 20th-century music from his homeland

For Gorecki, Shara Worden put aside her pop persona as My Brightest Diamond
If you can manage it, it helps to dial back your nervous system — to access those alpha waves —in order to get the most out of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (No. 3).

Expectations that a 53-minute symphonic work will be full of incident and a spectrum of moods have to be set aside. The piece, notoriously a best-seller on record in the 1990s but still a rarity in the concert hall, requires the kind of in-the-moment attention that successful meditation does.

Krzysztof Urbanski made the work the focus of an all-Polish Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. That spotlight might have been taken by a new work, an ISO commission, by Wojciech Kilar, if the composer had lived long enough to complete it.  His death on Dec. 29, however, kept his young admirer Urbanski from being able to premiere "Pastorale e capriccio."

In its place, Urbanski and the ISO are offering repeat performances of Kilar's "Krzesany," a short 1974 work celebrating the vigorous folk dances of Poland's Tatra Mountains. The work was last presented here two years ago in a performance I remember as tidier than Friday night's. The untidiness of the latter rendition can be largely attributed to an otherwise commendable outreach decision: From the podium, Urbanski enlisted 20 audience volunteers to play percussion instruments from the stage terrace as the work reached an ending that would have been noisy enough without them.

"Krzesany" deserves kudos for its close-up deployment of its folkloric inspiration. With its grinding string sonorities and unpredictable outbursts of brass and percussion, the piece probes far deeper into its sources than many symphonic compositions similarly inspired. But its final pages pitted exhilaration against clamorous overkill. An otherwise satisfying conclusion did battle with relief that the piece was over.

Getting back to the Gorecki:  The work is laid out with preternatural skill and patience. In the first movement, a 10-voice canon 24 measures long is layered with agonizing slowness until a magical paring down introduces the vocal soloist.

Shara Worden was selected by Urbanski at the suggestion of ISO director of artistic planning Zack French. Here's French's account, emailed to me March 2 to correct my original version of the story, which was prompted by Worden's remarks at her "Words on Music" appearance Feb. 28.

"About two years ago, I had a different soprano penciled in for that week (from the opera world) who had done the work several times around the country.  She didn’t have the kind of voice that Urbański was looking for, so we released the hold and continued searching.  He had a Polish pop artist in mind, but her voice was too gruff and she wouldn’t have been able to hit the high, sustained notes of the Górecki symphony.  I immediately thought of Shara, who had just sung in our Happy Hour (January 19, 2012 I think).  I played “We Added It Up” from My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Unwind” album.   Her vocal range, control and timbre in that song was what sold him on using Shara for this weekend."

The third time was the charm, apparently: Worden performed the solos in all three movements with fervor and a graceful folksinger-like timbre. The use of a microphone didn't require her to access her little used operatic voice, which was a wise decision. The balance of voice and orchestra seemed just right, and amplification allowed Worden to avoid sounding overcultivated.  It also didn't force her to belt out the rare high and loud passages in ways that might have sounded coarse.

In "Words on Music" Friday evening, Worden told about her careful study of the Polish text, her pronunciation helped by Urbanski's coaching via Skype as well as her familiarity with Slavic sound production because of a year spent in Moscow. She also spoke of the challenge of placing her voice in an instrumental context which "is like a watercolor painting in the way he blurs sounds: he'll take the same line and scootch it over slightly, so you're not clear where the downbeat is."

That's a decent way of describing the overlapping of the piece's long, slow phrases. The procedure honors the mourning texts in a manner that dares the listener to have a perfunctory response. You're either caught up in Gorecki's steady embracing of the simply designed songs or you're tuning out.

Getting restless or inattentive tends to put the listener outside sympathy with the work's occasions for lamentation, like a motorist whose mundane errands are delayed by having to wait for a funeral procession passing in front of him. Woolgathering is wasteful when attending a concert, particularly one prepared as scrupulously as this one seems to have been.

Zach De Pue displayed mastery in Szymanowski.
Completing the program is the mercurial, colorful early modernism of Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1, with ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue as soloist. The neatly coiffed, business-suited De Pue clearly wanted concentration upon his performance rather than his usual, affable, millennial aura. The program biography didn't even mention his founding membership in the hip string trio Time for Three, though it alluded to it.

De Pue's playing of the demanding solo part, spread over five linked sections that make the piece seem like an involved autobiographical  narrative, was consistently enthralling. He projected the violin line with an almost heroic flair, closely coordinated with the kaleidoscopic variety of his colleagues' accompaniment. Urbanski elicited from the orchestra precision, light-and-shade spectacle, and grandeur all along the way.

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