Saturday, February 28, 2015

20th-century American music, never a surefire draw on symphony orchestra programs, earns its keep on the ISO schedule this weekend

Jeffrey Kahane displayed flair and sensitivity.
The odd absence on most American orchestra schedules of American music has been a puzzle to me ever since the bicentennial boomlet of that repertoire in 1976.  Naively, I thought widespread acquaintance with American composers would whet the appetites of managements and audiences alike to wave the flag, musically speaking, and everyone would benefit year after year.

It never happened, though the market allure of world premieres has swelled the number of fresh commissions from composers with a social security number. What about those deuxiemes, those troisiemes, and so on? Better not ask.

Well-known names and familiar pieces from the American catalog can still bring out the crowds, however, as was evident at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night, when guest artist Jeffrey Kahane played and conducted an all-American concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Kahane, appearing for the eighth time as an ISO guest over a 32-year span (as he told the audience at the outset), practically pulsated with enthusiasm throughout the program.

To turn at once to the evening's tour de force: He conducted from the keyboard George Gershwin's Concerto in F.  A great deal of orchestral and pianistic activity overlaps in this old favorite, so Kahane was busy. Between standing up to lead the tuttis and sitting back down to resume his solo duties, he also needed to turn pages in the score and flip his tails out of the way whenever he dropped back quickly to the bench. A sensible short jacket would have taken away one part of the show, which was great fun to watch.

Beyond that, this was an electrifying performance. The rhythmic elan was unceasing, a naturally applied element that unified piano and orchestra with hardly a lapse of coordination. Especially impressive was the middle movement, insofar as it seemed a great adventure throughout, like a brisk walk around and about Manhattan.  The fast episodes burst naturally out of the bluesy main material, which featured excellent trumpet solos and the delicate moan of oboe against clarinets.

The huge ovation that followed the last booming chord unsurprisingly blended admiration and sheer astonishment.

Matters had been no less expertly brought off in the concert's first half. The intricate perpetual-motion machine known as "Lollapalooza," a jumpy, clattering curtain-raiser by John Adams, required maximum alertness. One false wind entrance near the end marred what seemed to be a thoroughly engaged account of the work. The music is typical of the composer's "enhanced minimalism," in which repeated short structures are subjected to virtuoso tweaking, this time resting on the "beat" of the word "lollapalooza."

What a perfect segue the Adams provided for Leonard Bernstein's Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town"! The opening movement dialed back the relentlessness of Adams' procedures to the Broadway sass of Bernstein in his formative years as a composer. But the kinship seemed unmistakable. There are hitches and jazzy arabesques throughout the three pieces, with considerable relief in "Lonely Town," featuring a plaintive English-horn solo. The last episode, launched by the dependably cheeky E-flat clarinet, featured a take-no-prisoners alto sax solo by the redoubtable Mark Ortwein.

To demonstrate that he is more than a one-man pep band, Kahane drew from the orchestra a wonderfully textured account of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" suite to end the first half. The segments of the Martha Graham ballet for which Copland provided such an eloquent setting were richly characterized. The suite displays Copland's durable knack for sensing what will go over with concert audiences; he removed all the boring bits from the original, "Ballet for Martha."

In this performance, the suite's concluding measures created a hushed atmosphere of peace in an idealized rural setting, with the orchestra putting forth the kind of true pianissimos the current music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, and his predecessor, Mario Venzago, have worked on achieving.

Fitting right into the evening's high spirits, the post-intermission video interview with principal tuba Anthony Kniffen presented a charming portrait of a light-hearted expert on his heavy, deep-voiced instrument. He came across as articulate, devoted, and unpretentious about his art.

After the video finished, when associate concertmaster Philip Palermo went to the piano to sound the tuning note, Kniffen rather than the first-chair oboist was the first to match it from deep within the orchestra. For a moment, it was all about the bass.

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