Saturday, May 16, 2015

Heart-and-head music: ISO plays Liszt and Tchaikovsky, tingling the nerve ends

Dramatics that seemed to leave the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season when Broadway commitments held F. Murray Abraham away from his scheduled narration of Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" have come back in another form in this weekend's replacement program.

When he plays rather than poses, Johannes Moser hides nothing.
Canadian-German cellist Johannes Moser was engaged for Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and on Friday night delivered an exuberant, stageworthy performance of the piece, with Cristian Macelaru on the podium. The Hilbert Circle Theatre audience went wild at the end, calling Moser back for an encore, the same composer's "Andante cantabile," led by Macelaru conducting the ISO strings.

The encore focused on the sweet side of Moser's art. In the scheduled work, various facets of the soloist's exuberant personality came to the fore. Dynamic contrasts were broad, tempo shifts (as in the fifth variation) were expressive, almost teasingly so. The hesitant episode before the doleful sixth variation was quite effective in preparing the change of mood. Most important to the success of these effects, Macelaru and the orchestra were right with the cellist, whose collegiality was evident.

Macelaru begged for no applause interruption in the"Pathetique"
The recitative-like cadenzas that dot the Rococo Variations were powerful and emotionally clearcut. Like the outsized opera stars of yore, Moser widened the piece's spectrum beyond virtuosity and lyricism: There was a force-of-nature breadth to his playing. In Tchaikovsky, at least, he's a Chaliapin of the cello. Almost every note was in tune; his left hand was a blur visually, a laser beam aurally. The rapid passage in octaves in the finale sounded precisely on pitch.

Guest conductor Macelaru was retained from the Abraham program, and is opening the new one with the work originally scheduled, Franz Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1. A favorite of romantic specialists at the piano, the orchestral version is demonic, mysterious, and brash, grabbing the listener by the lapels in the signature Liszt manner.

Violin, cello, and harp solos lent an atmospheric zest to the narrative, drawn from the lesser-known romantic Faust poem by Nikolaus Lenau. The hero's companion devil commandeers music-making at a village inn; his hypnotic fiddling has Faust smitten with a local doxy and dancing away with her. The climactic acceleration of that dance was spectacularly handled Friday.

It was good to have Zach De Pue back in the concertmaster's chair, though I'm trying to get used to his new hairdo, with its topknot that wiggles when he gets energetic. He looks as if he's planning to audition for a production of The Mikado ("Defer, defer, to the Lord High Executioner"). I need to set this mockery in a charitable context, however: De Pue seemed graciously reluctant to take a solo bow at Macelaru's indication, wanting more sustained acclaim directed toward acting principal cellist Ahrim Kim, who had capably played what I presume was her last solo before she departs for Rochester, New York.

After intermission came Tchaikovsky's final symphony, its movement-long subsidence at the end sealing the rightness of its nickname, "Pathetique."  Macelaru came onstage with a microphone, gentling advising the audience not to applaud before the performance's conclusion. The galvanic third-movement march regularly prompts stormy applause, but of course there is the heavy-hearted Adagio to follow. Like Pavlov's dogs, however, a few audience members responded predictably to the stimulus.

The ovation in its proper place was well-deserved. The finale was notable for the fullness and warmth of its billowing, tear-stained phrases; the strings sounded great. This is an orchestra fully ready to give a good account of the Mahler Fifth next month. I didn't form that impression in the first movement, however, in which the dashing energy of the main theme was imprecise.

The contrasting theme was well-managed, and the score's swelling and receding dynamics were pretty scrupulously followed. Speaking of which, there's no clarinetist I'd rather hear in the super-soft soloing before that dramatic full-orchestra convulsion than David Bellman. (That goes for the clarinet solos in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, too.)

The middle movements — the odd-footed Waltz and that aforementioned frenetic March — had admirable cohesiveness and balance. This is the second guest conductor in as many weeks who has exhibited special insight, with well-achieved results, into the program's symphonic masterpiece. The ISO is on a roll, so about that Mahler 5 with music director Krzysztof Urbanski, I say: Bring it on!

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