Saturday, March 10, 2018

Honoring the ruling aesthetic of today's symphonic repertoire: ISO plays Beethoven and Dvorak

This weekend's program in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series sits squarely upon the mainstream repertoire. Despite many exceptions, that means the 19th century. Concerts comprising Antonin Dvorak and Ludwig van Beethoven hold up the values and procedures we have come to identify with Romanticism.

I may be in the minority in thinking that the greatest period in classical music was the 20th century. Nonetheless, I still hold the music of its predecessor dear, and a program consisting of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture and Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor is not a ho-hum occasion for me. I'm no cookie-cutter modernist nerd.

Nonetheless, Friday's concert under the baton of ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski reminded me of the comfortable world within which so many music-lovers (symphony patrons in particular, not so much solo recital and chamber-music devotees) prefer to dwell. And it worked to the disadvantage of Dvorak, whose D minor symphony struck me as essentially a period piece.

The performance was lively and apparently deeply felt. The work is skillfully constructed, even if its themes are pedestrian. There are some startling details in harmony and rhythm from time to time. The Scherzo has charms that tell fitfully across the decades. But Dvorak, though here in full control of his means and ends, doesn't necessarily speak to our time. Beethoven still does.

Yefim Bronfman's return as an ISO guest artist was most welcome.
What do I mean by "period piece"? In music, it's a piece so thoroughly of its era in layout, rhetoric, and manner of expression that its pertinence to people living in 2018 is somewhat questionable. It can be brought forward now and then without harm, maybe even with new insights. But without  digressing into list-mongering, to me the Dvorak Seventh is less essential today than either his eighth or ninth symphonies (as overplayed as the latter is), and belongs on the shelf along with, say, Wagner's "Lohengrin" and Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" piano concerto. I could well add a handful of 19th-century violin concertos that remain alive largely for the display of present-day virtuoso fiddling.

The Dvorak Seventh is saturated with earnestness from stem to stern. So is the Beethoven piano concerto that Yefim Bronfman is playing with the ISO this weekend. But the C minor concerto is a work of genius, with charms and forcefulness alike that remain striking today. Dvorak was among countless composers who swam in the tide that poured from Beethoven early in his century, in this work and many others.

I liked the way Bronfman banked his fires in the first movement. He held something in reserve, but didn't understate so severely as to seem indifferent. He knew when to give a trenchant turn to a phrase or a cadence. His trills sparkled. Moments of introspection — and we know from the sketchbooks how Beethoven slaved over his songful inspirations — always seemed to provide an authentic look into the composer's soul.

A hush settled over the  Hilbert Circle Theatre audience in the second movement. The floating feeling of this Largo didn't entail a hint of shapeless drifting apart: Urbanski's coordination of the orchestra with the ever-responsive Bronfman never faltered. Largo is the slowest common tempo designation; the performance proceeded as if the movement couldn't be taken a jot faster and retain the same integrity. In the finale, each episode built logically upon what preceded it. Transitional passages were perfectly matched to the main material. Bronfman's shift to the rollicking Presto that wraps everything up was exhilarating. Called back for an encore, the pianist offered a luminous account of Debussy's Clair de lune.

The program opened with a crisp, dramatic account of the "Coriolan" Overture. Here's a work that offers another point of comparison with a Koch Classics ISO recording under Raymond Leppard's baton, like last week's Overture, Scherzo and Finale by Schumann. Not to devalue what Leppard accomplished as the ISO's fifth music director, but the orchestra has improved notably under his two successors: Mario Venzago and Urbanski. Friday's performance had a more genuine tension than the CD account because it was interpreted with a new suppleness and tonal richness, qualities that the passing years have fortunately brought to the ISO.

Literature dates faster than music, on the whole. The play that inspired the "Coriolan" Overture is a period piece; Shakespeare's play on the same Roman figure survives because it has so much to say about leadership, which can be both super-competent and tragically stubborn.  Despite its coldheartedness, "Coriolanus" speaks to the 21st century. We don't have a contemporary Coriolanus in this country now, but a tragedy based on a different set of failings might be unfolding. The best we can hope for is that this presidency will someday also be regarded as a period piece. In the political sphere, that kind is even less worth revisiting than the likes of the Dvorak D minor symphony.

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