Saturday, May 21, 2016

With Duruflé and Beethoven, ISO probes the sublimity of divine and natural worlds

ISO guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero
Quite influential in its day, Friedrich Schiller's 1795 essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" has been eclipsed by scads of subsequent fashions in literary criticism. But its imaginative, if reductive, division of poetry into the kind that springs from an unsophisticated vision of reality ("naive") and the kind that is generated by nostalgia or self-consciousness ("sentimental") is still powerful.

And it applies to the program the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is presenting this weekend. The program's repetition this evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre is worth special attention. The yoking of Maurice Duruflés Requiem (the first in ISO history) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") is unusual. Both works are under the expert,  impassioned control of Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

And each, in its own way, reflects a consistent yearning for an unself-conscious relationship to reality — whether in the divine (Duruflé) or natural (Beethoven) realms. Schiller's essay takes seriously the drive to revisit a golden age, a paradise: "So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both."
Friedrich Schiller contrasted art's eternal tensions.

Catholic theology, particularly as reflected in the Mass for the Dead, does not overprivilege nature, of course. But in his reverence for Gregorian chant and the pervasive flow of emotional outpourings spread over nine liturgical Latin texts, the French composer plants his flag on the side of "naive" poetry. The composition's occasional outbursts of choral and orchestral sound — its ringing "Hosanna in excelsis" and unsettling "Dies irae" — never shift to the quasi-operatic scenarios of Berlioz or Verdi. They are affirmations of chaste devotion to what the Church proclaims as truth that are meant to be part of an integrated statement on the same level as the pleas on behalf of the deceased.

In true German synthesizing fashion, by the way, Schiller didn't advocate a return to naive poetry. He
only recognized that the yearning for it would be inescapable. What he was after was progress toward an ideal unity of humankind's divided consciousness: a third stage, a higher and conclusive resolution of the perpetual conflict between naive and sentimental values.

And that's the direction in which both Durufle's Requiem and Beethoven's "Pastoral" head without reservation:  Beethoven's nature is a settled countryside; his embrace of nature is hearty in the first and second movements, but turns to human society in the third, which he titled "Merry assembly of the country folk." The foot-stomping Trio never stinted on exuberance Friday evening.

Nature interrupts the frivolity with a violent thunderstorm, which in this performance was everything one could hope for — a menacing cataclysm capable of frightening the horses and small children, partly unmanning men, and causing women to clutch their aprons and skirts as they run for cover. As the storm recedes, the folk resassemble to offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the loving God who has spared them: The natural disturbance has subsided in order to allow natural gratitude to take its expansive course. The way Guerrero conducted the finale made every variation of the theme an aspect of that gratitude, with a particular emphasis on brass punctuation to achieve a chorale effect. Similarly, every swirl and eddy of the second movement's flowing brook was observed, as if glinting in sunlight.

In the Requiem, Eric Stark's mastery of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir he directs burned with a steady flame. Each section sang its often lengthy phrases with a burnished glow, right through the final one of the "Libera me" — "and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire" — and on to "In Paradisum"'s conclusive prayer for the dead to have eternal rest. Dynamics were sculpted with care.

The choir held up splendidly in thin-textured passages, which Guerrero coordinated well with the orchestra — the kind of writing that confirms my sense that Duruflé consistently intends "naive" faith to be sustained in a "sentimental" setting. A bunch of such episodes come up in the Offertory, "Domine Jesu Christe," first with oboe and sopranos, then organ and altos, succeeded by English horn and string tremolos accompanying the men on the reminder "whom we this day commemorate," finally resuming with organ and the women as they evoke the promise made to Abraham. There was also, memorably, the "Pie Jesu," which showcased the women's pristine pitch and breath control, with Austin Huntington playing the cello solo with fervent restraint.

For Duruflé, Gregorian chant amounted to a precious naivete in Christian faith that he sought to keep fresh while acknowledging the influence of post-Impressionist choral and orchestral variety. For Beethoven, who declared "I love a tree more than a man," nature represented irreducible solace for someone cut off from society by deafness. So he sought to recover the simple pleasures of unself-consciousness celebrated by Schiller (whose "An die Freude" provided text that the composer adapted for his Ninth Symphony). But he pursued that project as one of the most painfully self-conscious artists ever.

Despite the pull both composers felt to be exerted by a simpler past, they would doubtless have approved of Schiller's idealistic caveat: "The goal toward which man strives by means of culture, however, is infinitely higher than that which he reaches by means of nature." The works on this weekend's ISO program endorse that difficult outlook magnificently.

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