Saturday, October 1, 2016

Frequent guest adds extra energy, insight to all-Beethoven program opening ISO's Classical Series

Long ago at the first newspaper I worked for, I often received a small periodical in the mail headed "The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known." As that heading indicates, these contained brief, feisty essays on the arts. They were a little hard to follow, but their ferocity was memorable.

One of the points the author (editorship has been passed on posthumously) made was to throw scorn upon the notion that great masterpieces never lose their appeal, no matter how often their admirers may hear them. He further debunked the related idea that the appeal of any masterpiece is imperishable, lasting forever. Immortality adheres no more to great art than to people, he contended.

Krzysztof Urbanski led a performance of a piece I never tire of.
I thought about this while listening to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra play a work that — while it probably wouldn't hold up to being heard daily, or several times a day — has close to inexhaustible allure for me: Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major. Krzysztof Urbanski conducted it Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, and the performance renewed my love. Maybe that was foreordained, but to be excited again by the Seventh indicates something fresh was brought to the performance.

It's hard to describe, but the renditions of this symphony that mean the most to me have a conceptual unity. The independence of each of the four movements is somehow brought under a general framework that links them, perhaps under such a phrase as Richard Wagner's "the Apotheosis of the Dance."

To achieve this, the second movement — famous for being encored in the symphony's early years and even performed separately — can't be too slow. The Allegretto designation means that the pulse of a dance, more stately than in the other movements, should be felt. Conductors have to avoid excessive ritards; Urbanski's were slight. There was no dallying in the Trio of the Scherzo, either. Only the first movement's introduction has to stand somewhat apart, building anticipation for the vigorous frolic to come.

James Agee (1909-1955) had a strange listening recommendation.
Urbanski's achievement with the ISO honored this unity. The Allegretto kept a pace marked by delicacy (there were wonderful pianissimo passages from the strings) and the avoidance of solemnity. There is a teasing quality to it that is evident in many other places in the piece. After we think, "Are we really going to hear the Trio again?" in the Scherzo, five swift chords wrap the movement up.

 The finale was animated in every feature, especially the recurrent leap up at the end of the main theme, which evokes Beethoven's model for it in one of the blithe Irish tunes a Scottish publisher had sent him for a commissioned folk-song arrangement.

The Beethoven Seventh has represented something beyond "mere music" to many people: An apotheosis, after all, is the turning of a lower level of existence into something divine. James Agee, in the introduction to "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," his booklength examination of the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression, oddly recommends putting discs of this symphony on the record player, turning up the volume, and getting as close as possible to it while listening with total concentration. That would be painful, especially given the quality of sound reproduction at the time. But he was getting at something important: the exhilaration that pervades the Beethoven Seventh is transcendent and all-consuming. That's the sort of performance we got Friday night.

The program soloist is Andre Watts, a familiar ISO guest artist, who will forever be associated with his youthful
Andre Watts: A favorite concerto soloist with the ISO.
televised debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Of course, he has sustained an admirable career ever since, and at 70 has firmly ascended to old-master status, crowned by white hair. His performance Friday of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 in G major made clear that he's not resting on his laurels.

In the first movement, his tone was both burly and pearly, as needed. Throughout, there was a wide range of dynamics in the solo part, reflected in the accompaniment, which was a model of rapport. To my mind, there was an agreeable blur in Watts' playing, never outsize but more a demonstration of a thickening of texture to match the expressiveness of the work and its reach well beyond the composer's Classical background.

The brief Andante con moto second movement, subject to a wealth of programmatic interpretation along the lines of "Orpheus taming the wild beasts," found something fresh in the sharp contrasts between piano and orchestra. Urbanski made the initial truculence of the orchestra more striking by giving every note a staccato terseness. The gentleness of the piano's phrases thus made its eventual command all the more compelling. Indeed, the fulcrum of Watts' interpretation was the overwhelming strength he poured into a half-dozen measures of trilling near the end. Every aspect of his mastery, and the orchestra's partnership with it, could be placed upon those few moments as a key to the impressiveness of the whole performance.

The concert opened with the Overture to "Egmont," scintillating in its assertion of triumph over the funereal cast of the long first section. The phrasing balance and the evenness of the orchestra's sound helped relieve the slow tempo of any feeling of stodginess. Just because he will never be overthrown, it's no tribute to Beethoven ever to get stodgy with him. Urbanski seems to understand that to his core.

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