Sunday, January 28, 2018

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Sean Chen make the most of ongoing collaboration

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart's 262nd birthday provided the marketing oomph for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra's concert Saturday night at Butler University's Schrott Center, but the present-day
collaboration with Sean Chen, 2013 Classical Fellow of the
American Pianists Association, claimed equal prominence.
Sean Chen shone in Shostakovich.

The latter took the form of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 35, a perky composition that showed off Chen's facility and rhythmic acumen. The theatrical spirit of the first and fourth movements hark back to the young composer's jobbing in movie theaters during the silent era. The flair of such accompaniments is underlined by the demanding role for solo trumpet.

Chen's solo partner was John Rommel, longtime member of the Jacobs School of Music faculty at Indiana University. The trumpeter's outer-movement brilliance grabbed most of the attention, but the muted lyricism of the slow movement also drew excellence from Rommel. Silent during the brief third movement, the trumpet often leads the charge in the finale.

The work is very much a piano concerto and not a double concerto, however. The sparkle required of the pianist is continual. Being forceful is a given, but simply banging it out would spoil the playfulness of the music. Chen avoided any hint of the stressful or imposing: As a man and a composer, Shostakovich endured enough stress and impositions from the Soviet state. He could often be blithe, as he is in this piece, though the strain of it all is never far below the surface.

Matthew Kramer conducted a performance that brimmed with aplomb. The ICO music director opened the concert with a few oral program notes about the new piece, Chen-Hui Jen's "in eternal dusk," a commissioned work from last year. (It's probably too late to wish composers would get over lower-case titles; it looks as if they all have hired Don Marquis' archy the cockroach as secretary.)

The 13-minute piece starts out with a promising distant rumble, somewhat like the dawn opening of Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe," but at the other end of the day. The gathering darkness only deepens, however, as long notes are sustained and blended across the ensemble. A dream scenario covers the whole, with a gradual lowering of pitch levels and the insertion of unpitched breathing through wind instruments. Those exhalations are the last thing you hear — the ultimate niente.

The common-time meter seems more a convenience for ensuring the ensemble stays together, rather than suggesting any regularity of pulse. Moment-to-moment contrast is rare: at one point, wispy high-pitched sounds set against the inexorably deepening timbres bring to mind the sea interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes." As with many dreams, the work's progress was both puzzling and captivating; it forced you to hang onto whatever gestures toward coherence you could in order to make sense of it all.

After intermission came the birthday blowout, Mozart's crowning symphonic achievement: No. 41 in C major. Chen had offered a prelude to it after the Shostakovich: his own arrangement of the Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro." If he did not pack every note of the original into his solo version, he came close, and it was all brought off with his usual elan.

As for the symphony, I enjoyed the prominence of trumpets and timpani in the first movement. It is this music that earned K. 551 the nickname "Jupiter," because its majesty seemed godlike to the work's early hearers. But it would have been fitting for the same instruments to have dialed it back more in the finale. Essential as trumpets and drums are to underlining and punctuating the Allegro molto, in this performance they sometimes covered the rest of the orchestra.

Every detail deserves to be heard. Mozart is so resourceful with all his material in this movement that you don't want to miss a single phrase or figure. If we are making analogies to the divine, they apply best to the fourth movement: Just as the Judeo-Christian perspective sees every bit of the Creation as essential to God's plan, so is there no phrase without purpose here. Nothing counts as transition; everything works. Mozart meets our astonishment with the irrefutable arguments of Jehovah to Job.

That said, the second and third movements were well put together, effectively paced with phrases well rounded off. The slow movement had the sustained songlike quality specified by the "cantabile" direction at its head. The birthday treat of this performance was just about all one could ask for.

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