Saturday, January 14, 2017

Men and Mountains: Indianapolis Symphony begins a two-week Music of the Earth Festival with Strauss and Copland

Borrowing a title (above) from Carl Ruggles, a composer unlikely to be played anytime soon by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the first week of the ISO's Music of the Earth Festival takes audiences to the Alps and the Appalachians.

Richard Strauss outside his beloved Bavarian villa.
The men-and-mountains alliteration exerts a magnetic pull, but, at least in the case of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," women are also a strong force in human interaction with geography. In fact, both musically and choreographically, the Bride's Dance in the American composer's ballet music for Martha Graham, seems to me the score's highlight and the focus of its energy.

However much women may be crucial to the settlement of mountainous terrain, its exploration has been culturally conceived as a male prerogative. For better or worse, the idea of male self-testing is bound up in mountains, "conquering" them and regarding them as a measure of physical and moral fitness.

In Friday night's initial traversal of the mountain claims staked by Copland and Richard Strauss, music director Krzysztof Urbanski was making a rare foray into Americana and, with Strauss' "Alpine Symphony," a return visit after three years. This time around, he linked his interpretation of the massive score to the spectacle of Tobias Melle's Alpine photography.

The prolific imagery, projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, was fully in keeping with the composer's mission to celebrate the unencumbered human spirit in connection with nature at its most awe-inspiring. Melle's focus ranges over the complete spectrum of nature in the Alps, from dew-spangled flowers and weather-worn dead trees to the grandest mountain vistas. Human habitation is acknowledged, but put in a context of individual adventure and close observation. 

Through montage, panorama, and occasional manipulation of light and shadow (particularly in the thunderstorm section), Melle moves well beyond a photo-album effect to complement Strauss's music. In 2014, projected movement titles helped orient ISO audiences to the work's pictorial riches. This time, the depictions derived from the composer's experience of the mountains were visually represented with just a hint of the encounter's transcendental meaning.

Strauss' inspiration from a poem by Friedrich Nietzsche called "Antichrist" might seem to center the work uncomfortably in an ideological agenda. Instead, his goal was to celebrate the unmediated encounter of clear-eyed humanity and the direct forcefulness and variety of the natural world as could be glimpsed from his beloved villa in Garmisch.

Strauss had less mysticism about him than any other major romantic composer; "Alpine Symphony" has a brief episode titled "Apparition" to salute folk legend. But you won't find any of the emotional and spiritual baggage that Tchaikovsky, in another tone poem bearing uneasily the designation "symphony,"  imported from Lord Byron for his "Manfred" Symphony. That work was wonderfully played and recorded many years ago by the ISO under Raymond Leppard. The triggering poem, also set in the Alps, has a central figure tortured by visions of meaninglessness, inconsolable over a lost love. 

Manfred is thus at the opposite pole from the implicit hero of Strauss's tone poem. Where Byron's figure says "there is no form on earth hideous or beautiful to me," Strauss, enhanced by Melle, begs to differ. Thus, "An Alpine Symphony" is about the only instrumental work I can think of that deserves the accompaniment of images. It begs for the multiplicity of forms and phenomena that symphonic music can only hint at, however vividly. Strauss is closer to Byron's friend Shelley, who looked at the French Alps wonder of Mont Blanc and proclaimed: "The secret strength of things, / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!"

Martha Graham and the leaping Revivalist in the ballet "Appalachian Spring"
"An Alpine Symphony" is all about "the secret strength of things," with little interpolation of masculine vainglory or existential despair. That is true of the music and imagery even in the crowning section depicting the mountain summit. The astonishing views Melle presents lent an extra expansiveness and glow to Jennifer Christen's oboe solo. Did she play it even better Friday than she did three years ago? Maybe not; maybe my ears and eyes both were fooling me. I'm willing to conclude it couldn't have been better.

Grandiloquent and carefully measured as it was, the ISO's performance was never overshadowed by the pictures' continuous "wow" effect. Balances were firm and orchestral colors (supplemented by sheep bells, wind machine, and organ) imaginatively deployed throughout. Besides, the musical acuity of the dawn and sunset portions framing the performance clearly eclipsed the photography's allure.

As for "Appalachian Spring," there was similar control applied to the hushed opening and closing measures. It also seems that Urbanski found something congruent with the folk dances of his native Poland in the "Revivalist and his flock" section, with its rhythmic variety and ecstatic accents. Despite brief lack of coordination between trumpet and strings, Friday's was a polished, exuberant account of a beloved American score. 

Strike that "men" stuff — this program is all about people and mountains.

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