Bang for your bucks: ISO presents a recent percussion concerto, flanked by Kernis and Prokofiev

Matthew Halls: ISO's adept, well-liked guest
Matthew Halls, a British conductor of astonishing virtuosity just in his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest appearances, returns to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium this weekend in his second ISO engagement this year.

This time the program is all 20th- and 21st-century music, with two of the three works composed by living Americans. On Friday night, the audience also got to savor the return appearance as an ISO guest of Colin Currie, a 42-year-old Scottish percussionist. The vehicle was the program's centerpiece, "Switch," a percussion concerto by another relative youngster, Andrew Norman (39).

In continuous motion, Currie ranged across the stage extension, which was crowded with a host of large and small instruments. "Switch" grabs the attention from the start, because the percussion-dominated introduction comes from orchestra section players. After a few moments, the soloist makes his entrance up a short flight of stairs, house right, and gets to work.

Percussionist Colin Currie, with tuned gongs across the top
Whether everything fell into place over the work's 28-minute course is hard to say on first hearing. Currie has played the work about 15 times, and there were obvious points of synchronization between soloist and accompaniment amid the welter of sound, so I'm confident that Friday's performance was shipshape. Furthermore, Halls' command of a great breadth of repertoire is a matter of record, and his batonless conducting seems unfailingly precise.

Currie's athleticism was tested in the concerto's first section, with a xylophone and two octaves of Almglocken (cowbells) taking up lots of space, and several cymbals and drums bunched at one end just to the right of the podium. In that forest of things to bang and stroke, there were a few rarities, notably several empty tin cans. Volume and timbre were explored extensively by soloist and orchestra until arrival at a peaceful plateau: An orchestral piano solo outlined a widely spaced melody that seemed to set the course for everything that followed.

To the sounds of that wistful piano, the soloist crossed over in front of the conductor, and his contributions on that side became more isolated and deliberate; "Switch" briefly left its video-game spasmodic layout to become contemplative. A shimmering wind chorale cemented the mood. There would be a return to the noisier, more diffuse side of the sonic spectrum, but the piece arrestingly came to a  thoughtful conclusion with Currie's return to the conductor's left. A suspenseful piecing-together of a short tune on tuned gongs hanging from a rack made for a haunting conclusion, after which the soloist – his frenetic bounding and sideways-slipping almost a distant memory — slowly walked backstage.

Norman's "Switch" opens up a secret garden of percussion, with the solo virtuosity displayed by Currie seconded by the orchestra in an unpredictable, nearly disorienting partnership. The work was refreshingly highlighted by its program companions: Aaron Jay Kernis' "Musica Celestis" for strings and a 20th-century masterpiece, Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100.

Kernis' piece seeks to represent the music of angels, which necessarily comes from the imagination's furthest reaches. The work, drawn from a string quartet, is much more effective with more strings, especially with the addition of double basses. The leadership of guest concertmaster Jeremy Black was crucial to the mesmerizing effect the piece made. Halls' management of the 12-minute work was sculptural. It grew properly animated when the work's middle section offered a reminder that when we hear from angels, it is no excuse to snooze.

After intermission came one of the 20th century's most prominent symphonies. Prokofiev, fabulously gifted and by temperament a canny opportunist, is much less hallowed for the nature of his adjustment to the Soviet regime than his younger contemporary Shostakovich. This work came out of the latter part of World War II, when the Russian homeland had already suffered gravely. The third-movement Adagio, a peculiar slow movement with restless undercurrents, best reflects the unsettling era that birthed it. Halls and the orchestra brought out the sense of suffering as well as the composer's irrepressible cheekiness.

In the first two concerts of this season, the orchestra has sounded louder than ever to me. This can be thrilling, but also rather daunting for listeners in seats close to the stage. I'm not sure if some adjustments to the subtle electronic enhancement of the hall (a feature ever since the Circle Theatre, now 102 years old, became a concert hall in 1984) are responsible or not. Maybe I should consider myself warned by the old rock-concert fans' slogan: "If it's too loud, you're too old."  Ouch!

At any rate, Friday's performance was splendid in many respects. (The loudness was almost painful as the first movement bawled out its final measures.) The finale, as expected, struck me as particularly marvelous. Prokofiev's sheer ingenuity is fully in evidence. Such a clever fellow, one often thinks: he manages to keep the peppy theme almost constantly in view, but it never becomes tedious — particularly when the conductor is as sensitive to the movement's variety as Halls was. Everything burbled along like a fantastic machine.

No wonder the work was accepted in the dour Soviet Union as an affirmation of the human spirit, and then quickly captivated the world. In the right hands, such affirmations can be effective with only small suggestions of profundity.


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