Saturday, October 14, 2017

All-American program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will move to Carmel Sunday

The two American works that make up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program are freighted with meaning.
Michael Francis has strong convictions about the Copland Third.
Some of it may fairly be described as the interpreter's choice, however.

Whether Copland's Symphony No. 3 (1946) benefits from the comprehensive, yet concise explanation that guest conductor Michael Francis gave it Friday in remarks from the podium to the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience is open to question. The program's other piece, Leonard Bernstein's 1949 Symphony No. 2 ("Age of Anxiety") has explicit reference to the anxiety of individuals in a time of general conflict and peril.

The composer explained at length the meaning of his two-part composition, with an extensive role for solo piano representing the protagonist. Though he excused listeners from needing familiarity with the W.H. Auden poem of the same title that inspired him, Bernstein was characteristically unshy about providing verbal guidance. The 1940 poem is set as World War II began sweeping over the world, and its resonance remained for Bernstein well after the Allied victory, when the Cold War arms race quickly extended the general anxiety.

Copland, on the other hand, provided accessible but quite analytical notes to his four-movement work for its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The struggles of America at war don't enter into his explanation. In Francis' view, the push-pull between the collective welfare and an individual's search for a firm purchase on confusing times is the process through which the Third Symphony proceeds. 

There was nothing false about his perspective, and the performance bore fruit in Francis' terms. Furthermore, though I don't subscribe to his vision of the work, it's quite clear that if you note signs of emotional distress and uncertainty in the music along the way, the triumphant cast of the finale — keyed to the popular "Fanfare for the Common Man" that Copland wrote in 1942  — has the added benefit of seeming hard-earned.

Orli Shaham put a lot of Bernsteinian character into "The Age of Anxiety."
The fanfare is in its full brassy flower early in the fourth movement. It has been foreshadowed by flutes and clarinets, which, by sounding too loud Friday, didn't quite build the intended suspense. When the work is taken as absolute music, the listener is readier to hear the riches of Copland's score in between the two monumental fanfare appearances, the second one of which is based largely on an apotheosis of the symphony's opening material. 

There is lots going on in that movement that recalls the rigorous training in the art of counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony Copland received (along with many other young Americans) in the Paris studio of Nadia Boulanger nearly a century ago. When your ears are set to the wealth of skill and inspiration in the main body of the movement, you don't have to worry that the symphony's conclusion is simply an overstatement. The light emerges at the end, but it is as much a kind of simplification of the musical palette as it is some kind of metaphorical light.

The other movements exhibit Copland at his most characteristic during the fertile era that also produced "Appalachian Spring."  If the work was also criticized initially as "a pale imitation of Prokofiev" (as the program book reminds us), it must have been due to some resemblance between the rhythms and orchestration of Copland's second movement and the Russian composer's "Lieutenant Kije Suite." But that blithe similarity is soon neatly moderated by a characteristic American sort of lyrical episode.

As for the "Age of Anxiey" symphony, it enchanted with a quite soft, interwoven clarinet duet as the Prologue got under way. Orli Shaham caught the introspective mood of the piano's entrance, and the mercurial nature of Bernstein's autobiographical concept was something she connected with throughout. An admirer of the older composer, Bernstein shows his enthusiasm for the angular writing of Copland's "Piano Variations" near the end of Part I. 

The purple passages of the composer's jazz tribute in "The Masque" were brightly executed, with much glorious interaction between the soloist and the percussion section. Rapport between piano and podium seemed airtight. When the strings entered after a long layoff, this music — necessarily connected to its extramusical meaning but easier to take in if you won't worry about all that — became thoroughly convincing, right through to the end.

ISO audiences need more programs like this one — concerts that bring to the fore the best products of musical America in the 20th century.

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