Saturday, March 21, 2015

New concerto embedded with loads of sentiment debuts at ISO Palladium concert

In what is often considered the abstract world of instrumental music, particularly classical, there turns out to be quite a lot of explicit tribute-paying, memorializing, and other ways of bringing forward personal loyalties and affinities, often tinged with loss and regret.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is introducing another piece in that tradition this weekend in three different halls — the Palladium in Carmel, the orchestra's Hilbert Circle Theatre home, and Avon High School (Hendricks Regional Health Performing Arts Center).

James Beckel honors brass, parents and a child violinist's tune.
ISO principal trombonist James Beckel has supplemented the legacy with his Concerto for Brass and Orchestra. The tradition he's extended, which overlaps with so-called program music, ranges from J.S. Bach's "Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother" through Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (dedicated "to the memory of an angel" [Manon Gropius]) to Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral."

The Indianapolis Star has related in great detail the foundation of much of the work, especially in the first movement, upon a melody ("Mama's Waltz") that concertmaster Zach De Pue wrote at 6 years old in memory of his mother, who died in a traffic accident. Beckel not only persuaded De Pue to let him use the tune in this ISO-commissioned work, but he also decided to have his composition honor "the mentoring of loving parents."

 (The Star's promotion of the story put the composer entirely in the shade, as though "Mama's Waltz"
had donned the concerto mantle all by itself:
The sorrow of losing his mother lingered for decades for Zach De Pue, the now 35-year-old concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. A simple melody he wrote at age 6 as tribute and rediscovered years later is a concerto premiering this weekend."

Zach De Pue, soloist and inspiration.
On top of all that, the title reminds us that the new work significantly honors orchestral brass — trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba — by spotlighting its expressive and technical capability throughout. It's a highly effective exposition of the instruments among which Beckel has spent his professional life.

The opening movement, where the devotion to the De Pue tune is most pronounced, is very intricately constructed. On first hearing, it seemed too busy.

The brass contingent moves from antiphonal positions on either side of the choral terrace to a massed position at its center, then down to the stage to join its colleagues. It was exciting to take in such shifting perspectives on the featured group. The dynamic variety in the score is stunning, colorful and virtuosic. Yet Beckel is careful not to lose touch with the simplicity of a child's inspiration in recalling his absent mother with a tender waltz.

The second movement also packs in quite a lot, but its variety struck me as more frankly charming and companionable. The elegiac mood is largely put aside. The composer's program note indicates the first section reflects a child's anger at the sudden loss of a beloved parent. That declared tie-in is to be respected, but Beckel's muse is generally so upbeat that I received the movement's opening as openly energetic and anticipatory — a bright corridor leading to the display to come.

The finale, even brighter and verging on the garish, puts a seal on the new work's effectiveness. Its intended mood of celebration is brilliantly rendered, with the featured brass often given extra ping by mallet percussion. The sudden hush before the final outburst couldn't be better timed: Beckel knows how to marshal his forces to the very end, providing moments of relief and reflection where they are most welcome. Led by music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the premiere performance exhibited love and commitment in every phase.

What an emotional wallop it is on the same program to have De Pue enter as featured soloist! He played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with an expressive breadth not always evident. The reigning lyricism of the first movement, as soloist and orchestra enter immediately with an engaging melody, was lent ample contrast by De Pue's vigorous passagework. The music's sweetness never became cloying. The middle movement had a poise and straightforwardness in Friday's performance that also banished the saccharine, keyed to the floating, Apollonian quality Jennifer Christen brought to the oboe solo, which the soloist sustained. The perpetual-motion finale found everybody digging in and De Pue remaining in exquisite control of the demanding solo role, which does amazing things none of the history of violin virtuosity had registered before.

And no ISO classical program in recent memory has done so much to salute the professionalism and artistic excellence of its personnel as this one.  Fortunately, it's scheduled to be heard three times in the metropolitan area in three places. The Beckel concerto will get even more exposure, as it was co-commissioned by the Evansville Philharmonic, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and the Omaha Symphony.

Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, by which the Czech composer made his reputation, occupies the program's second half. Urbanski displayed his usual aptness for balance and judicious color in drawing appealing accounts from the ISO in the course of the eight dances. The woodwinds offered much to savor. The slow dances were inviting, and the momentum of the fast ones was soul-stirring. The shifts in meter and tempo that characterize these dances were precisely managed. The spirit of the dance jostled for space among all the other benign spirits represented in this concert. The ISO's downtown patrons and those in Hendricks County are in for a treat.

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