Saturday, January 12, 2019

January in Paris: ISO says "bienvenue" to Dance Kaleidoscope in first classical program of 2019

Something to look at as well as to listen to gives special luster to the first weekend of the Indianapolis Symphony
Orchestra's "Paris Festival," which bridges the pops-classical divide through Jan. 19 at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Dance Kaleidoscope, a notable collaborator with the ISO in re-creating the turmoil that followed the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," returns to the stage to enact artistic director David Hochoy's choreographic vision of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" as the orchestra plays the score.

With a depth of only ten feet to work with, Hochoy has created a broad, varied vision of the work, which itself varies from a kind of rondo to a melodic miscellany. The picture hangs together, embracing the excitement of a stranger's visit to a celebrated world capital as well as the tug upon him of homesickness and loneliness.  The foreshortened vision of the stage I had from my seat engendered slight fears that an errant foot might dislodge a violin or viola, or hook a bow. But exquisite planning ruled, and the dancers' control as well as Hochoy's design allowed the horizontal sweep of the choreography to charm the audience and fly free of instrumental entanglement.

Dance Kaleidoscope's Stuart Coleman, as an American in Paris, looks upon the enchantment.
Stuart Coleman starred as the American visitor of the piece's title. His fresh boy-next-door demeanor and an
open, curious facial expression matched his interaction with Parisian citizens —   bus riders, boulevardiers, shoppers, and strollers alike.

There are also fantasy figures costumed after the romantic ballets that flourished in the French capital. The bustle of Gershwin's music was brilliantly synchronized with representations of the most stimulating and storied aspects of daily life in the City of Light.

When a bluesy contrast enters, so does in this production Mariel Greenlee, costumed in red, sinuously portraying a coquette given stature by a kind of aristocratic elan. Her central duet with Coleman was mesmerizing. Something both teasing and standoffish came through; Hochoy avoided overemphasizing the couple's rapport as the swirl of street life resumed. The company dazzled, and never seemed confined by the long, narrow space the dancers had to work in.

The choreographer showed his usual skill in projecting emotion without sentimentalizing it. The blithe spirit of Gershwin's music certainly supports this approach. My only complaint is that I lost concentration on how the orchestra was playing, but it seemed to offer a cheeky, deep-dyed account, with tempo and textural changes managed adroitly by conductor Krzysztof Urbanski and precisely followed by the dancers arrayed behind him.

Adding to the program's appeal, Urbanski twice used a hand-held microphone to offer oral program notes in the concert's first half. He's gotten better and better at this since his early attempts here. With a twinkle in his eye, he  explained the rationale behind two slow movements coming down to us in Mozart's three-movement "Paris" Symphony in D major, K. 297: the original and an alternative. He had the orchestra play excerpts from both and conducted a "push-poll" that signaled his preference for the more ingenious first Andante, which the ISO then played in full.

His story behind Mozart's rewriting the middle movement is one I hadn't come across before. Urbanski said the composer was not impressed by the ovation that greeted the original Andante, in a Parisian culture receptive to applause between movements. So he came up with a substitute that went over better. I've read an explanation that placed blame for the composer's revision on the 1778 "Le Concert Spirituel" director, a Monsieur Le Gros, not the audience: the slow movement was too difficult, the impresario advised. Mozart was angling for employment in the French capital, so either explanation is plausible. This jibes with the artistic dilemma facing the 22-year-old composer, whose father was urging him in correspondence to "be guided by French taste. If you can only win applause and be well paid, let the devil take the rest."

As biographer Maynard Solomon tells it, the independent-minded son rejected what he saw as a counsel for philistinism. Speaking of the whole symphony, Wolfgang wrote back: "I can answer for its pleasing the few intelligent French people who may be there — and as for the stupid ones, I shall not consider it a great misfortune if they are not pleased. I still hope, however, that even asses will find something in it to admire."

Father Leopold's response indicated he shared some of his son's disdain for French taste, despite his earlier practical advice: 'You must remember that to every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears." The general populace can always be counted on to bray its approval, I guess.

Friday's performance apparently pleased the range of today's taste, both the long- and the short-eared kind,  as the "Paris" Symphony opened the concert, the orchestra sounding in fine fettle. Urbanski next picked up the mike  to introduce contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson's three-movement tone poem "Les cités de Lovecraft." The expansive work is a lavish orchestral tribute to the imaginary cities described in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, an American purveyor of horror and sci-fi with a persistent coterie of devoted readers.

The ISO music director had visual representations of the cities projected upon the overhead screen as he spoke. The images were helpful in taking in the pictorial richness of Connesson's interpretation. The score lies in the French tradition — evident from the 17th-century clavecinists on through Berlioz and up to Messiaen and Boulez — of highlighting sound and resonance, raising ornamentation to essential prominence, eschewing Austro-German rhetoric in favor of organic structure. "Les cités de Lovecraft" perhaps drove its allure into the ground, especially in the second and third movements. Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece.

Nonetheless it certainly justified its place on this program, if not so inevitably as Debussy's "Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun," which followed intermission. This masterpiece, which immediately spotlights the solo flute's hypnotic, suggestive low register, draws the listener in from first note to last. Karen Moratz's presentation of that opening, with horns in the background, then some exquisite oboe and clarinet, captured the vague mythological atmosphere of a half-human creature lazily entranced by nymphs. Guest concertmaster  Justin Bruns embroidered the performance stylishly with the violin solos near the end.

The work is a rare example of a ground-breaking composition being a hit from its premiere onward. How interesting a refutation of the seemingly fixed musical gulf the Mozarts had found between asses and connoisseurs just over a century earlier! It's not always, as the French adage has it, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

[Photo by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra]

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