Saturday, February 25, 2017

ISO delivers handsomely for another guest conductor, and two-piano splendor energizes the audience

The Labeque Sisters wowed the crowd in Poulenc's two-piano concerto
The pre-eminent duo pianists of the day excited the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience Friday night in the only full-length performance of this weekend's Classical Series program.

The schedule yields to the music of Queen tonight, but last evening Rossen Milanov reigned over a concert of music by Toru Takemitsu, Francis Poulenc, and P.I. Tchaikovsky at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The Bulgarian conductor, now music director of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra,  opened with the Japanese composer's quarter-hour evocation of an imaginary garden rooted in his love of real ones.

"A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden" offers a wide spectrum of orchestral sonority, distantly derivative of Debussy's manner of prioritizing sound and avoiding cadences and development. Forging a style of his own, Takemitsu, who died 21 years ago,  represented the first internationally successful blend of Japanese sensibility with the Western symphony orchestra.

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov was effective throughout the concert.
The brief outbursts were well-managed in this performance, subsiding into gentle textures, cumulatively amounting to what Takemitsu described, according to Marianne Williams Tobias' helpful program note,  as a "shifting panorama of scenes." The precise way in which orchestral color is distributed seemed fully responsive to Milanov's guidance. Well-knit in all respects, the performance had stunning "markers" of its divisions in the solos of Jennifer Christen, oboe, and Roger Roe, English horn.

An extensive display of Milanov's insight, rhythmic sweep,  and attention to detail came after intermission, with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Little Russian"). The nickname is not an affectionate diminutive, but an old designation (Little Russia) for Ukraine, whose sovereignty has recently been subject to the Russian bear's clawing.

Everyone's favorite Russian composer drew upon folk songs; in the first movement, his way of digging into the material is repetitious and fairly unimaginative.

The performance Friday was set on its course by an extensive, warmly played horn solo (Robert Danforth) before the "Allegro vivo" main section took over with its sophomoric handling of the generating folk song. This is certainly music that even a novice symphony goer would have no trouble following to the lively end. The finale, while also able to communicate immediately and forcefully, is treated in a more sophisticated way. The contrasting material is more interesting and woven into the galvanic energy of the movement, with its signature splashes of brass and percussion.

As heard Friday, the middle movements were both lively and under firm control. The second, "Andantino marziale, quasi moderato," indicates by that heading its delicately executed march character, given touches of wit up through the final bar. The Scherzo, a fleet affair, was nicely brought off Friday, with solid playing throughout the strings.

The weekend's guest soloists were Katia and Mariella Labeque, a two-piano team with an international reputation going back decades. Born in Bayonne, France, they have the unanimity as a team expected of specialists in their precise art. The vehicle here, a popular one among duo pianists, was Poulenc's Concerto in D minor. The outer movements glory in their immediate impact, and the Labeques were off to the races from the start. The middle movement focuses on a beguiling Mozartean theme, reflective of the composer's love of the 18th-century Austrian.

Despite his formally and harmonically conservative style, Poulenc's spirit and manner were fully 20th-century, and the sorts of contrasts this piece embodies have a restless modernist quality about them. The music is by turns charming, nose-thumbing, reflective, iconoclastic, flamboyant, attention-grabbing and glib. His devout Catholicism doesn't make an appearance in this music, except obliquely. "Gay and direct," a favorite Poulenc description of his music (credit again to the program note), describes the man himself, with the first word carrying today's exclusive meaning. Without the preening outrageousness, Poulenc is sort of a Milo Yiannopoulos among composers of his era.

The performance sparkled and surged, and Milanov handled the accompaniment  duties with elan. The Labeque sisters responded to the ovation with an encore, Philip Glass's "Four Movements," a spectacle whose power snowballed in a blaze of tandem piano virtuosity.

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