Saturday, April 30, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's INfusion Music Fest raises environmental consciousness while putting forward unusual repertoire

To launch a weekend like no other in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history, the INfusion Music Fest  came up with a cabaret setting in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's lobby for a concert featuring Time for Three.

Th original Time for Three, together for the last time this weekend.
It was a nod to the future of a new kind of ISO outreach. For Time for Three, it was also a fond look at the string trio's history. The group is ending an era here this weekend, as ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue leaves the trio he helped found in order to concentrate on his ISO duties. Taking his place will be another violinist, Nikki Choi, also an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music, where Time for Three was formed 15 years ago.

With its original membership of De Pue, violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, it has been a good run locally. In its history as resident ensemble here with the ISO, Tf3 has premiered new works by William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and Chris Brubeck, each one drawing upon a different patch of the vernacular spectrum.  In addition, it has developed its own repertoire, captured in several recordings, and made countless local appearances.

Its INfusion show Thursday night added to the trio two adept musicians steeped in collaboration with it: keyboardist Joshua Fobare and drummer Matt Scarano. The five were featured in a piece they wrote together a while back in Colorado, "Summer Fusion."

It was a genuine quintet highlight of the rapturously received lobby performance. But there were also some of Tf3's "greatest-hit" arrangements and original compositions: Meyer's "Philly Phunk," Kendall's "Roundabouts," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Occasionally, Fobare and Scarano would "sit out" to allow the pure Tf3 sound to get the spotlight.

There was a movement, "Big Wood Reel," presented as a tantalizing preview of Tf3's performance with the ISO tonight of its suite, "Elevation: Paradise." As a further indication of the trio's essential role in the INfusion festival, Kendall and Meyer leaped onstage to help Ben Folds deliver an encore Friday night, when the ISO concluded an adventurous program with Folds' piano concerto, the composer at the keyboard. De Pue assisted in the rocking extra from his concertmaster's chair.

Folds' three-movement piece betrays a desire to pack just about any idea that came his way into a big statement. The opening movement in particular, overplaying its introductory hand, took too much under its wing to leave a coherent impression. There were soaring strings in a personalized late-Romantic idiom to start things off, but the piano entrance meant a turn to the forcefulness of the composer's rock background. A solo cadenza, seemingly at midpoint, was also torrential, then surprisingly, after a floating viola-cello melody morphed into a waltz, we looked out on new terrain.

The second and third movements seemed much better integrated. Folds gave the piano a nice, sparsely harmonized tune to dominate the slow movement. The finale was a perpetual-motion whirlwind of piano-and-orchestra energy; the abruptness of the ending amounted to a welcome touch, as it indicated that Folds didn't feel it necessary to maximize the spectacle he'd already presented. As a composer, Folds displays here a taste for percussion as a coloristic element. He also indulges that taste with some inside-the-piano passages, from glissandos to partially stopped notes (a struck key with the corresponding string pressed down by the other hand).

Jayce Ogren, the festival's guest conductor, also conducted two environmentally conscious pieces to make fast the connection between music and the environment that's INfusion's raison d'etre. The more substantial of them was John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean," winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the inspiration for a gift of $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony by Taylor Swift.

Lasting just over 40 minutes, "Become Ocean" uses a large orchestra to create an uninterrupted tapestry of swelling and diminishing sound, with no variation in tempo and no figures, motifs, or themes designed to stand out or generate new directions. The orchestra choirs of strings, brass, woodwinds (each with individualized percussion underpinning) hold a steady, unvarying course that seems to symbolize the ocean as a vast force that basically doesn't need and can't account for human activity. "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean — roll! / Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain," Lord Byron sang.

Massive indifference to mankind's existence, insistently expressed, comes through, though not with the hostility evident in the art of another shore-dwelling creator, the poet Robinson Jeffers. In other words, there's nothing outsized in the sound of this music that wasn't outsized to begin with. The world doesn't need more than one composition like this, but "Become Ocean" is sufficient and even necessary in these imperiled times.

Steven Mackey's "Urban Ocean" has some of those swelling and subsiding phrases that parallel "Become Ocean," but it's splashier, much more frisky and playful. Its 10 minutes seemed a little too long, oddly, but maybe having the perspective of John Luther Adams' piece didn't work to its advantage.

With just a few hours remaining, there's a host of talks by co-presenters, in addition to lobby displays, that as a whole make INfusion a don't-miss event on this weekend's busy calendar.

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