Saturday, March 14, 2015

ISO offers French music with a touch of grimace and flair, plus Brahms for sobriety, this weekend

With the noisy fun and games of Respighi's Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) still ringing the rafters of Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night, the audience that gathered for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was soon treated to a more glowering uproar from Berlioz and Ravel.

The gargantuan Honor Orchestra of America, an annual ISO guest, had departed the stage shortly before Ludovic Morlot mounted the podium to conduct a half-French, half-German program — a replacement for the Elgar-centered original one, from which indisposed ISO conductor laureate Raymond Leppard was forced to withdraw.

Ludovic Morlot has brought the buzz back in Seattle.
Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony, was just mentioned in a speculative New York Times piece as a dark-horse candidate to succeed Alan Gilbert at the artistic helm of the New York Philharmonic. The 41-year-old Lyon native is known in Seattle for his crossover enthusiasm, including the 2011 innovation of Sonic Evolution. That series came to national attention a couple of years ago when rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot emceed an orchestral update of his "Baby Got Back," featuring extensive onstage booty-shaking by audience volunteers. (At the time, I thought it was the end of symphonic music as we know it. I was wrong.)

Things were not exactly sedate in the first half of Morlot's engagement here, though more within the symphony-orchestra universe. He opened with Berlioz's deliberately menacing Overture to "Les Francs-Juges," the only surviving remnant of the Romantic firebrand's  first attempt to enter the world of French opera. It's a splendid, eccentric piece — notable for its weighty brass statements, anchored to a foundation of two tubas. The composer preferred ophicleides, and his memoirs are peppered with complaints that the instrument was almost never to be found in orchestras outside France. Those bass keyed bugles are extant only in museums now.

The overture's lyrical contrasts appear to plead ineffectually against the judgments of the medieval German tribunal around which the opera's action swirls. Morlot drew a properly invigorated account from an orchestra for which this composer was almost a specialty under the music directorship of John Nelson (1976-1987). Here, the burgeoning Berlioz fashions a kind of rough unity out of disparate elements in unique, surprising ways, reminding me of Wynton Marsalis' comment in an interview that everyone in music derives from somebody else — "except Berlioz, man!"

Bertrand Chamayou displayed his mastery of left-hand Ravel.
Morlot welcomed his younger countryman Bertrand Chamayou to the stage for another fitfully gloomy work, Ravel's  Concerto in D major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra.  The solo instrument's entrance after an orchestral introduction full of foreboding — conspicuous Friday for Mark Ortwein's boldly stated contrabassoon solo — was spectacular.

Pianists need shrewd control of the pedal to build sonorities that sometimes seem enough work for two busy pianists. Chamayou was apt for the task.  The thundering cadenza, with its recollection of that initial foreboding, was properly climactic, setting up the swift collective slammed doors of one of the French composer's darker works.

It was ironic that this week's ISO player showcased in the post-intermission video is principal oboist Jennifer Christen, who was out sick and not able to play the brief, lovely oboe solos in the third movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. In any event, that movement was the least satisfactory in this performance, insofar as it needed more breathing room. Morlot, who seems to favor lots of sostenuto playing, not just where the score indicates it, fashioned an overupholstered account of this daintily designated "Un poco allegretto e grazioso."

Otherwise, this was a fine representation of the work.  The first movement, with no exposition repeat, swept everything up grandly in those gestures by which the late-blooming symphonist announced his arrival in the genre. It led naturally to a second movement that offered a smooth, shapely respite, capped by concertmaster Zach De Pue's superb soloing near the end.

In the finale, plasticity returned after the smothering third-movement display. The movement's long introduction was marked by a particularly assertive performance of that wonderful horn call, which seems to speak so authoritatively of open vistas that it was folded into the soundtrack of an episode on the old "Bonanza" TV series,  in which Hoss Cartwright gazes out from a butte. Or maybe it was a mesa. Dr. Johannes Brahms in the Old West — what an image!

The broad tune that provides the movement's main substance was warmly rendered. Famously, it reminded so many of the symphony's first listeners of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme that Brahms expressed open annoyance. It occurred to me in the stirring rendition Friday night of the movement's climactic passages that the way Brahms abandons this melody instead of fashioning an apotheosis from it was to show how definitively he had escaped his titan predecessor's shadow. "See, I can honor the master with a good melody that will remind my audiences of him," Brahms seems to say,  "then set all that aside to indicate I have plenty to say on my own. I'm free!"

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