Saturday, February 23, 2019

Austro-German concentration: One full-length ISO concert this weekend, featuring two young guest artists

It was meat-and-potatoes repertoire for the first short Classical weekend of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2019 schedule — an Austro-German focus with three of the four pieces well-known.

Conductor Christoph König's career is based principally in Europe.
Friday's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre, reviewed here, will not be repeated; a partial preview was offered in Thursday's Coffee Classical series, conducted by Christoph König, music director of the Solistes Europeens Luxembourg. For both concerts, the guest soloist was mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, also making an ISO debut.

The Irish singer put across a steady interpretation of Gustav Mahler's "Rückert Lieder," five songs set to poems by the 19th-century German writer Friedrich Rückert. Her voice blossomed expressively at the right times, though more intensity was needed at the climax of "Liebst du um Schönheit." The missing fiery glow was supplied in the final song of the set, "Um Mitternacht," where she applied gloomy intensity  to the second verse (a partial translation: "No star in the entire mass smiled down at me at midnight"). The transfiguration of the lament in the last verse, made stark and mighty by the composer's focus on winds and percussion, was majestically handled by voice and instruments alike.

König and the orchestra opened the concert with a well-modulated reading of Richard Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude. The stately beginning was kept from sagging, and the light-hearted march characterizing Nuremberg's apprentices contrasted well with the procession of the town's august master singers. The Prize Song featured a string accompaniment of surpassing delicacy. As the themes are recombined in glory, the ISO and its suave guest conductor rose fully to the occasion.

As a student musician long ago, one of my fondest youth-orchestra memories was rehearsing and playing for a loyal public Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 459 ("Unfinished"). In the middle of those wonderful trombone chords in the first movement (I played second trombone), I inevitably thought: "Hey, maybe I'm meant to do this for many years to come." I was wrong about that, but this music is so seamless a blend of means and ends that even a fledgling ensemble can take pleasure in preparing it. The ISO's account was many levels higher, of course, with well-shaped phrases, pinpoint dynamic contrast, and balances that strongly carried the music's strong yet tantalizingly ambivalent message.

Speaking of nostalgia, here's a double dose: With "Der Rosenkavalier," Richard Strauss as opera composer pulled back from the asperities of "Salome" and "Elektra" for an elaborate, retrospective interpretation of upper-echelon 18th-century Vienna. The complicated plot surface is rooted in canny characterization, full of intrigue and awash in emotion. All of it eventually amounts to the age-old comedy resolution: the love that is meant to be is firmly asserted after all barriers are struck down.

The other nostalgic thread pulled by this performance of Strauss' orchestral suite from the opera connects to an old New Yorker cartoon that may have been evoked for others in the audience as well. In addition to its sweeping waltz episodes and recollection of  the opera's bustle and confusion, the suite climaxes in  uplifting reminders of the last act — especially the trio for sopranos in which the aging Marschallin gives up her romantic dream for the sake of a young couple, followed by that couple's simple duet of mutual devotion. "Der Rosenkavalier" thus emphasizes at the end the virtue of accepting what must be; magnanimity is tinged with regret for the loss of what might have been. A secular peace which passeth all understanding can be glimpsed.

No wonder cartoonist Edward Frascino's bedridden middle-aged man, tucked under blankets and looking haggard, makes this request of his wife, standing nearby: "I know the doctor said this is only a bad cold, but in case he's mistaken I'd like to hear side eight of 'Der Rosenkavalier' one last time."

For all those fond of the "Rosenkavalier" side eights in their LP collections, as well as those who know the opera fully staged, this performance probably delivered the goods, allowing for the absence of glorious singing and lavish sets and costumes. The horn section played with healthy bravura, the soloing was first-rate — especially from guest concertmaster Stephen Tavani — and ensemble unity and verve were unfailing once the introductory measures jelled. And the love music produced that dependable catch in the throat.

So yes, when in doubt, put on side eight!

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