Friday, November 10, 2017

Brahms showcase: Two principals occupy the spotlight successfully in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts

Cellist Austin Huntington: Makes debut as ISO member-soloist.
Featured soloists drawn from the orchestra usually don't have to do double duty. But when two principals of string sections are spotlighted in the same concerto, it's no wonder their services as section leaders are too valuable to do without, as is customary when they are featured soloists.

So it was in the first of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts on Thursday morning, when concertmaster Zach De Pue and principal cellist Austin Huntington were on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage throughout the Coffee Concert.

They led their respective sections in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 101 in D major ("The Clock"), then took up soloist positions to conductor Krzysztof Urbanski's left for Johannes Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. (For the remaining concerts keyed to the formidable Brahms "Double," the same composer's Variations on a Theme by Haydn will complete the program.)
ISO audiences have often heard Zach De Pue solo.

Huntington and De Pue had their work cut out for them in the concerto, a unique composition in the Romantic era. Once the solo concerto took root in the first half of the 19th century, bringing more than one soloist to the fore became rare.

Fortunately, the Brahms Double is both characteristic of the complex expressive nature of its composer and so well laid out that the soloists get to explore all sorts of interaction clearly.  There's considerable exchange of lyrical passages, some statement and counter-statement, and much wonderful digging in together, especially in the last movement.

The partnership Thursday was solid, much more than congenial. It seemed to reach beyond amity to register the grandest statement possible from two young masters — both of whom were hired for their positions while in their 20s (Huntington just barely out of his teens). The cello part, somewhat dominant overall, was always in good hands, from the opening recitative-like solo on.

Urbanski managed the accompaniment handsomely. The first tutti revealed some imprecision in the violins, but the material comes back frequently, and gradually it attained more unanimity Thursday. The wind colors in the second movement were bright yet unobtrusive. This movement also made evident the advantage of positioning the double basses on a higher platform along the back than I remember ever seeing them on. 

The finale may be Brahms' most imaginative use of the rondo form. The Gypsy vigor of the main theme is nicely set off against a variety of episodes, including some passages that, in this performance, helped lend suspense and heighten anticipation of the theme's return. More projection from the solo violin, perhaps a matter of acoustical variation around the hall, was the only thing lacking, especially toward the finale's climax, in a top-drawer exhibition of the strength the ISO enjoys in its first-chair first violins and cellos.

Urbanski opened the concert with one of Joseph Haydn's magisterial "London" symphonies. "The Clock," so named from the steady tick-tock of its Andante, was especially fetching in that movement. The episode in the minor made a startling entrance, creating an effective contrast with the measured propriety of the main theme. A measure of "grand pause" here was spoiled in its drolly dramatic effect by premature applause. Clapping between movements can be tolerated, but when the conductor is beating through just one measure where no one plays, and still applause intrudes, suspicions are stirred. 

The expansive minuet-and-trio movement was vigorously accented and retained its hold on the attention, though I didn't pick up on all the comical details that program host Doug Dillon told the audience to listen for. The controlled "driftiness" of the trio was slightly amusing, but I was mainly focused on the excellence of assistant principal flutist Rebecca Price Arrensen, sitting first chair at this concert.

The smooth-running finale brought out the best from the violins, who characterized its vigor about as well as they had in a much different atmosphere when leading the orchestra in the gently mysterious introduction to the first movement. In one of the episodes, the stirring Sturm und Drang recollection of an earlier Haydn period was most captivating, and the complex treatment of the main theme received scintillating treatment here. It was especially marvelous to notice Huntington's and De Pue's full-bore commitment to this busy music right before they were called upon to make glorious work of the Brahms Double.

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