Saturday, January 24, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gallops off with a troika of Russian programs, Krzysztof Urbanski at the reins

The late Ernie Banks was famous not only for his prowess on the baseball diamond, but also for his enthusiasm for the game, expressed by his signature phrase, "Let's play two!"

The ISO answers Ernie Banks: "Let's play three!"
On the day the great Chicago Cub died, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra launched "a midwinter Russian music festival" with a program so ballyhooed you could almost hear the ISO community shouting "Let's play three!"

And so they will, following Friday night's program debut with another Hilbert Circle Theatre concert tonight before taking the show on the road for its "317 Series" in a final performance Sunday afternoon at Avon High School in Hendricks County.

Banks' connection with high art is not known to me, except for the suggestion after the Picasso sculpture for Chicago's Daley Plaza was first announced that a realistic statue of Mr. Cub would be more appropriate. By all reports, Chicago has grown to love its enigmatic, untitled Picasso almost as much as it does No. 14, who now belongs to the ages.

In any case, Russian concert music has the kind of pizazz and catchy tunefulness that make much of it very nearly popular art. It's no accident that the three composers represented on this weekend's concerts each wrote one of the best-known short orchestral works ever: Sergei Prokofiev — March from "The Love for Three Oranges"; Aram Khachaturian — "Sabre Dance"; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — "The Flight of the Bumblebee."

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski was on the podium in front of a huge ensemble to open Friday's concert with Prokofiev's "Russian Overture," op. 72.  It's a crazily episodic, rarely performed piece— a description that is sufficient explanation for Urbanski's uncustomary use of the score, though he appeared to have it virtually memorized.

The 1936 work has aspects of the near-contemporaneous music for "Romeo and Juliet," whose suites  from the ballet are justifiably in the standard repertoire. And it looks forward to the wartime masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, particularly in the way dissonant slashes cut across repetitive melodic patterns. "Russian Overture" has a diminutive artistic stature in comparison, but its bumptious high spirits and sometimes plaintive folk-music inspiration — did the Aaron Copland of "Rodeo" and "The Tender Land" listen to it? — support the listener's interest. "What next?" you wonder.

Guest principal trumpet Chad Winkler was put to the test and came through brilliantly. The whole orchestra had to be on its mettle, and some of the piece's awkward joins were not quite smooth. Though I wouldn't want to encounter "Russian Overture" often, its splashy verve had the right festival spirit to inaugurate the next three weeks of ISO concerts.

Urbanski was in his element, sans score and stand, for Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," the expansive, picturesque tone poem inspired by "The Arabian Nights."  Its "community of themes and motifs," in the composer's phrase, makes it easy to follow. Its variety of texture and timbre helps the 40-odd-minute length seem reasonable.

Philippe Quint's playing reflected this kind of joy.
To suggest some of the patience through which the restless Sultan was held spellbound by Scherherazade's life-extending story-telling, any musical representation naturally requires a certain girth.

Rimsky-Korsakov's music always sounds to me like the product of the son of privilege he was. Well-placed in the Russian society of his day, the composer skillfully turned out pieces somewhat sparing of "heart," with emotion handled in a top-down fashion. "Scheherazade" is an exotic excursion with a masterly Grand Tour air to it; the tribulations of its characters are incidental.

The score is notable for a plethora of first-chair solos, most conspicuously for the concertmaster as the voice of the Sultana herself — seductive and enthralling out of a keen sense of self-preservation. Her predecessor brides had not been able to escape execution, and "The Arabian Nights" tales are purportedly the record of how she avoided their fate. Zachary De Pue gave an assured, self-possessed account of Scheherazade's narrative links.

The orchestra was at its best as "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" tale reached its hushed conclusion. It caught the rolling waves of "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" in seaworthy fashion, and visited "The Festival at Baghdad" with well-managed outbursts of revelry, keyed to the hard-working percussion section. The shipwreck and its aftermath, subsiding to the Sultana's final musings, were exquisite.

Conservative modernism was the language Soviet composers had to speak, and no one was better at it than Khachaturian. His violin concerto draws on the convulsive energy Russian artists were allowed to express if it could be interpreted as exalting the people rather than following "formalistic" procedures linked to the bourgeois West. The Armenian composer knew his job and did it well.

Guest soloist Philippe Quint played the concerto with almost nonchalant aplomb and evident joy in his work. This is not to say his approach was ever superficial; he dug deep, and everywhere he delved, he brought up something valuable. He drew a rich tone from his instrument, the 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius, throughout the violin's range.

The long-breathed, melancholy theme of the second movement was well-supported and elegantly decorated.  He met the bravura demands of the finale handsomely,  and its low-lying contrasting tune was gorgeously rendered.

Slightly blurry coordination with the orchestra during fast passages in the first and third movements should come into focus by Sunday afternoon. The accompaniment exemplifies the Russian musical equivalent of what Carl Sandburg once called poetry: " a synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." On Friday, the ISO brought those seemingly incompatible elements together in a meeting of minds with the adept soloist.

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