Saturday, January 23, 2016

Voyager is 2 billion miles away, but the ISO is right here playing some of the music on it

The first time I heard "The Rite of Spring" in concert, Richard M. Nixon was there with me.

I shouldn't assume it was also the President's first time, but that was likely the case. His musical tastes got only as highbrow as Richard Rodgers' "Victory at Sea." He had skipped the main event marking the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts — the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" — for what were credibly rumored to be political reasons.

Attending the National Symphony Orchestra's christening of the center's concert hall with Mrs. Nixon in September 1971 was a shrewd compromise. I was nowhere near the presidential box, of course, as the crowded room witnessed Antal Dorati leading the NSO forces in Igor Stravinsky's shattering masterpiece.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's  "Rite" at  Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday didn't put me in such
The image that misled me as a teenage fan of "Rite"
distinguished company, but the performance had the same kind of momentous feeling. And I'm guessing its clarity, tonal allure, and rhythmic acuity surpassed what I heard in Washington, D.C., more than 40 years ago.

The particulars of that performance have long since been swept into oblivion, but I remember somewhat better my second live hearing of the work, when in the 1990s Frederick Burgomaster conducted a professional pick-up orchestra (including many ISO members) to cap the "Stravinsky Fest" he had mounted across the Circle at Christ Church Cathedral. It struck me as both exciting and routine.

There was nothing routine about what a capacity audience heard as Krzysztof Urbanski conducted "The Rite of Spring" in the first of three performances this weekend. The program opens a three-weekend "Cosmos Music Festival," which celebrates the music director's high regard for both music and science. Before a note was played, he drolly told the first-night audience that NASA had discovered Indianapolis to be the center of the universe for at least the duration of the festival. This must be the ISO's ultimate outreach programming.

This weekend's concerts focus on music included on the Golden Record, a selection of Earth's music aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and believed to be now some 2 billion miles from its origin. Urbanski invited the audience to imagine Beethoven's Fifth, "The Rite of Spring," and the Queen of the Night aria (from Mozart's "Magic Flute") as if heard by sentient beings unimaginable distances from Earth.

As difficult as that might be, there was a freshness to Friday's performance of Stravinsky's precedent-setting ballet score. Its evocation of pagan Russia in modernist terms, created by a young composer just coming into his own, has proved to be beyond imitation. With mixed reviews at its 1913 premiere including a famous riot, the hostile reception that first night in Paris was certainly influenced by the unseasonably warm weather, Vaslav Nijinsky's unconventional choreography, and the odd costuming.  No one in that audience could have been much in the mood to remain calm, whether pro or con.

After the high-register bassoon solo, given a touch of elegance by John Wetherill, the ISO performance soon moved onto a high plane of rich color and startling accents through the "Augurs of Spring" and "Ritual of Abduction" sections. The absolute Russianness of the thematic material has been emphasized by many commentators, correcting my early impressions of the music as rooted in  tropical lushness. The first recording I knew, with Pierre Monteux conducting, had Henri Rousseau's "Snake Charmer" reproduced on the jacket. The exotic jungle image has been hard to shake.

Vaslav Nijinsky in "L'apres midi d'un Faune."
Urbanski, with his Slavic heritage no doubt coming into play, reveled in the work's rich melodies. He also didn't hold back from what one early critic sneered at as the score's "tinselly barbarism" — the blend of sensuousness Stravinsky absorbed from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a focus on mixed rhythms, dissonance and clashes of tonal centers throwing Romantic "expressiveness" into a cocked hat.

Critically noted in ambivalent terms for his quasi-choreographic movement in his recent  San Francisco  Symphony debut, Urbanski here in his typically scoreless management of this music was as animated as I've ever seen him. He made full use of the podium. Some of his postures — the curved back, thrusting arm motions, raised heels with some near-pivoting on toes — brought to mind images of the great Nijinsky. It was as if the maestro were unconsciously evoking the era of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo out of which the great Stravinsky ballets emerged.

The concert's second half opened with the ferocious display piece of the Queen of the Night, one of the most theatrically outsized arias in the operatic canon. The ISO's guest soprano is Shannon Love, who on Friday negotiated the pinpoint coloratura nearly
without a hitch, accompanied smartly by the ISO. Her fervor was unrelenting, her technical prowess sound.

Before intermission, Urbanski's grand manner with Beethoven's Fifth occupied the spotlight. In
Shannon Love portrayed Mozart's raging queen.
keeping with modern practice, his procedure with the first movement, whose four-note motif is the touchstone of classical music even among people who never go near a symphony concert, was "Allegro con brio" all the way. The momentum was overwhelming Friday night, and frequently a challenge to the players.

The most significant pause in its progress — a one-measure oboe cadenza — introduced a note of poignancy to the interpretation as played by assistant principal oboist Roger Roe. It was like an answer to Beethoven's characterization of the movement's main material as "Fate knocking at the door" along the lines of "OK, I'm coming — but I'm sort of dreading this."

Softer dynamic levels were expertly managed in the second and third movements. The rushing passage for cellos and basses  in the latter was somewhat imprecise, but otherwise the level of coordination remained high.

Usually I'm a fan of "breathing" hints in instrumental music, which indicate players' sense that the source of all musical impulse is song. But I liked the dense character Urbanski and the ISO gave to the main theme in the finale. The phrasing was broad and mighty, the canvas filled edge to edge. Who needs to breathe? The movement is one long exhalation. This seemed quite suitable for the atmosphere of absolute triumph that the Fifth Symphony moves toward in its protracted conclusion. And the exposition was properly repeated with no let-up in the thick impasto of sound the orchestra applied to Beethoven's portrait of unquenchable Victory.

Pre-concert chamber music by ISO players was also drawn from the Golden Record. I appreciated the pensiveness Sylvia Scott brought to the Prelude that opens the second volume of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." The only composer represented more than once on the Golden Record, Bach concluded this short program.

For his Second Brandenburg Concerto, names of three of the concertino players were omitted in the printed program, but oboist Jennifer Christen, flutist Karen Moratz, violinist Philip Palermo,  and guest trumpeter Joey Tartell made a pretty successful attempt to get the right balance in the front line, a few extra-loud bursts and missed notes from the trumpeter to the contrary notwithstanding.

Concertmaster Zach De Pue offered a poised account of a movement from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin, then joined ISO colleagues Peter Vickery, violin; Amy Kniffen, viola, and Austin Huntington, cello, in an evenly set forth, subtly ethereal performance of the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat, op. 130.

Whatever intelligent creatures far away in the universe may make of the music from this small blue-marble planet, we can only hope the human race will not have rendered its place of origin uninhabitable by the time they discover it. Our descendants need to be around to savor their responses. In the meantime, it seems sufficient that today's earthlings can enjoy the musical achievements the ISO is sampling this weekend.

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