Saturday, June 13, 2015

Urbanski, the ISO, a solo quartet and chorus scale the heights of Beethoven four times to end Classical Series

Programming that for two weekends has concluded on the glorious heights of D major guarantees that bright key — especially in the giddy rush of the final measures in Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Beethoven's Ninth — a role in sending Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audiences into the summer with happy memories.

Friday night's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor ("Choral") in a well-filled Hilbert Circle Theatre elicited a predictable shouting and standing ovation, but it was deserved in so many respects that it didn't seem automatic. The audience was clearly also in a mood to enjoy the 20-minute opener, Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4, which presented the ISO in its most glittering aspect, nicely focused on compact, emotionally appealing music by the conductor's eminent countryman (1913-1994).

Krzysztof Urbanski: Tensile strength and insight in Beethoven
In the Beethoven, music director Krzysztof Urbanski  drew from the orchestra an immediate display of tensile strength: The first movement featured sharply defined rhythms and dramatic interplay of rising and falling lines. As the coda approached, the dialogue of woodwinds and strings was piquant and precise. Particularly gratifying was  the sound of massed lower strings, with the basses nestled in a bulge behind the violas and cellos — a harbinger of their unanimity in the insistent recitative passages that propel the first part of the finale.

The Scherzo was distinctive in the extra thrust of the timpani punctuation that gives the movement its character. After the second violins righted themselves in the repeat of the main section, all was in order. The Trio seemed to look back to the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) and ahead to the open-hearted presentation of the "Ode to Joy" theme in the finale, and the Haydnesque burst of wit in the final measures was nicely turned.

Urbanski deserves special kudos for the way he kept the Adagio movement in constant motion. The music invites ponderous wallowing, but is more effective when its parade of colorful variations passes by with the naturalness of breathing. The second theme especially unfolded like a gentle exhalation.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir contributed its patented vigor and polish to the last movement. Its entrance was as dramatically set up as possible: Those cello-and-bass dismissals of the symphony's earlier music were particularly brusque and impatient; the baritone soloist, Daniel Okulitch, paused a few seconds after rising from his chair before launching into his stentorian "O Freunde...." When he introduced the famous tune, the only flaw was the disappearance of the word "geteilt" (parted, separated).

The rest of the quartet— soprano Aga Mikolaj, alto Abigail Nims, tenor Eric Barry — put rewarding effort into its role, especially in the outbursts near the end. One never expects a Ninth Symphony solo quartet to really blend, but that lies more in the nature of Beethoven's writing than any shortcoming among the four guest singers. Barry, accompanied by a marching-band variation, gave expansive, spread-armed heft to the tenor's solo stanza. His operatic flair served as a reminder that the source of Wagnerian tenorism, from Lohengrin through Tristan, lies in this stirring passage.

Eric Stark's scrupulous training of his chorus was remarkable in several ways. Diction is always clear; balance and tone are unshakable. He favors making the most of separating notes in a phrase if it emphasizes the meaning: "Und der Cherub steht vor Gott" (and the cherub stands before God) was sung as if to underscore the exalted unity of all creation celebrated in Friedrich Schiller's poem. He can get his singers to shout without coarsening the vocal texture: It was fun to be startled by the final word in "Ahnest du den Schoepfer, Welt?" as if the whole world's attention was being commanded in no uncertain terms.

A striking insight in Michael Steinberg's peerless essay on this symphony is that the Ninth "seeks to make an ethical statement as much as a musical one." The crux of the work's significance, mounting through portentousness, ferocity, and serenity toward a vision of human unity, has always felt to me like an unresolvable ethical challenge. Is the call to joy in all creation under a benevolent creator directed at us individually or collectively? Only one verse, it's true, addresses the individual search for joy — and it's conspicuously old-fashioned, pegging a man's happiness on finding a good woman.

Nonetheless, the statement Steinberg raises seems problematic: Is the idealism behind collectively feeling the joy of life a mite dangerous? In the case of Schiller's text, is this part of the forceful excesses of romantic aspiration that went astray in the last century in Austro-German culture, awaiting a charismatic leader who would interpret "die Welt" as "das Volk"? Are we better off seeking this joy individually as a liberation from the prison of this one body in this one life, or does it only make sense en masse?

I offer one coincidence to reflect upon as Beethoven's Ninth enters its 20th decade, as venerated as it was at its Vienna premiere. The translation of "Ode to Joy" printed in Steinberg's book ("The Symphony: A Listener's Guide") was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a gift from the First National Bank of Boston in 1978. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the bank's favor  in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, helping establish corporations' status as persons subject to First Amendment protection in the electoral process.

Familiar question: Is a corporation a person? And is happiness best conceived as something individuals can celebrate together as individuals, or is it meaningful only collectively? And should we worry when collective joy is considered the peak emotion of all, sanctified by God?

In signing onto the ethical ideal of the Ninth Symphony, maybe we need to spare more than a little sympathy for one "der stehl(t) weinend aus diesem Bund" (who steals from this company weeping).

[Photo credit: Lena Knutii]

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