Sunday, March 26, 2017

ISO opens up wide 19th-century vistas in pairing Mendelssohn with Bruckner

Violinist from Seattle is ready for the world stage
The last time Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audiences heard Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto in E minor, I was at pains to avoid sexist implications in describing the character of the solo playing. This weekend's soloist, like last time, was a young woman who delivered a robust interpretation. With Simone Porter Saturday night, the ISO accompanied a similarly bold, astonishingly ferocious account of the work at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

I found it wholly winning, even though at the very start I wondered if there would be too little phrase-to-phrase definition: The familiar phrases were welded into place. Before long, however, more suppleness became evident. The interpretation never lost its solidly constructed quality, but there was so much more.

In the first-movement cadenza, the soloist set up a kind of internal dialogue that recalled J.S. Bach's strong influence on the fellow Lutheran (through family conversion from Judaism) who revived the St. Matthew Passion publicly as a young man. From there, the transition re-admitting the orchestra was smoothly handled, though the soloist's acceleration momentarily threatened to leave the accompaniment  behind.

In the Andante, her tone remained firm as every ounce of lyricism was wrung from the music. Intensity was brilliantly distributed across the performing forces. At about the point a spooky transitional passage led into the galloping finale, it was clear something miraculous was happening: Porter was showing us Mendelssohn's daimon — his personalized divine spirit. Every great creative artist has one, but Mendelssohn, even at his best, is often admired for being marvelously facile, impeccably well-mannered, and craftsmanlike. And that can seem enough, even as he is commonly held to fall short of the transcendent quality readily sensed in Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, among precious few others.
Matthew Halls

Parker showed herself to be a performing artist with something else another Greek word properly describes: charisma. The unity of her stage presence with her musical ideas and execution raised her debut appearance with the ISO to a memorable experience. There were some brilliantly articulated phrases in the finale, with bowing choices that seemed like a departure from the norm, and always suited her fresh apprehension of the Mendelssohn concerto. The overall effect amounted to a renewed and deepened view of the piece.

The program's other work showcased the gifts of the guest conductor, with which ISO regulars were already acquainted. Halls led a warm, well-proportioned account of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E major. At 65 minutes, the performance neither dawdled nor seemed pressed to move along. And the mood, despite the central position of an Adagio mourning the death of Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner idolized, was overall joyous. There was even a lightness of effect that speaks volumes about the simple optimism of the Catholic faith that carried the Austrian composer through frequent disappointments in both life and art. Halls drew this quality out; you didn't have to wait for the peppy Scherzo to find it.

How is this possible in a composer so often associated with hard-to-digest heaviness, with the ponderous side of a late Romanticism that seems ill-suited to our restless age?

I might bring in another composer of distinction influenced by Richard Wagner, the Englishman Edward Elgar. On the score of his Second Symphony, with its own memorial movement (dedicated to King Edward VII) Elgar inscribed a quotation from his countryman Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight." The dark vision of that short quote permeates Elgar's stirring work. In contradiction, the Bruckner Seventh is almost a creedal assertion that delight never goes away. But it's the kind of delight that rests assured in divine providence, in the composer's certainty that the promise of heavenly life offers delightful comfort to the temporarily earth-bound.

If you see the Spirit of Delight as a constant companion (not a rare visitor) as Bruckner did, it's clear the Seventh's fortified brass proclamations come from the same source as the Scherzo's peasant dance and the winged solos in flute and oboe that fleck the Adagio. Halls and the ISO put this spirit in the forefront. Those of us who can't share Bruckner's faith can nonetheless find in performances like the one Saturday an answer to an apparent mystery:  A symphony lasting over an hour, with formidable peaks and misty valleys, freighted with earnestness and requiring sustained attention (including the effort to ignore a ding-a-linging cellphone) can seem thoroughly delightful.

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