Saturday, April 27, 2019

Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta puts a personal stamp on this weekend's ISO program

The promotional video JoAnn Falletta made for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's website conveys her affection for the unusual program she is conducting this weekend.
JoAnn Falletta got the ISO to deliver on her enthusiasm for the music.

The enthusiasm was given a firm foundation in Friday's Hilbert Circle Theatre concert of orchestral music by Samuel Barber, Edward Elgar, and Zoltan Kodaly. The marquee item was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, featuring Kevin Lin, a Taiwanese-American violinist who was appointed co-leader of the London Philharmonic in 2017.

The orchestral pieces aren't obscure, but their presence in a collective concert package is conspicuous. And the ISO's realization of them under Falletta's baton was thoroughly successful.

 Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" is an original suite of music influenced by gypsy music the composer heard as a boy in the small Hungarian town where he lived for seven years. The roots of Kodaly's extensive adult activity as a folk-music collector are in Galanta.

The piece is the sort that in the old days found a place on "symphonic pops" programs. That's not to say it doesn't belong on programs of the classical mainstream, but to indicate it's the sort of work that readily gets across to casual listeners or relative strangers to the meat-and-potatoes repertoire. It hooks audiences in, as it did Friday, from the first dance on, with its seductive clarinet solo. Assistant principal Samuel Rothstein played it with conspicuous flair. The performance was also noteworthy for the vigor and coordination of the strings in heavily accented phrases.

Lin came on after the rousing Kodaly performance. He applied his rich tone judiciously as the first movement of the concerto got under way. He had attractive concepts to expound upon, diminishing and slowing phrases now and then to call attention to landmarks along the way. The Canzonetta (second movement) was ravishing, and in the finale, the rustic spiritedness that so antagonized one of the piece's first critics, the Viennese monstre sacré Eduard Hanslick, took over from the first. Lin presaged the wildness to come in his initial statement. As the movement proceeded, he embodied it to an extent that challenged the orchestra to keep pace, but the accompaniment was up to the task.

The only portion of his performance that bothered me was what followed the first-movement cadenza. It seemed
Kevin Lin captivated with the concerto and, for an encore, a stirring account of Paganini's ninth caprice
overheated, and it banged into the double bar so forcefully that some in the audience were stirred not only to applaud, but also to stand. Lin and the orchestra thus achieved a fine effect, but my notion of what might be called the rhetoric of the romantic concerto is that the solo cadenza represents a summing-up and release of the tension created in what precedes it. What follows such an unaccompanied statement should have the aura of accumulated wisdom, in which the basic material is addressed from a new angle, wholehearted but somehow viewed from above. This may be a peculiarity of taste. Lin's was a winning performance overall.

Barber's First Symphony, which Falletta has declared the greatest American symphony, was unknown to me, though the program book notes that the ISO played it 17 years ago. I must have missed that, or else memory has failed me. I prepared for Friday night by finding online a video performance last year by the Chicago Youth Symphony, and it blew me away. The oboe solo that launches what is in effect the slow movement of this one-movement work nearly brought me to tears. I thought, "If a student oboist on screen can affect me so, what will happen when the peerless Jennifer Christen plays it in the concert hall? Will I simply dissolve right there in seat L202, and a chemist have to be summoned to reconstitute me?"

I managed to keep my composure, fortunately. But the principal oboist's solo was predictably stunning, and she deserved Falletta's salute and call to stand as the audience's warm ovation began. Even if the solo had been played unexceptionally, it is so crucial to the work's structure that it seems to gather the entire force of the piece into a grand statement that brings it to a majestic conclusion. Barber, with his authentic romantic sensibility, must have known he'd come up with a wonderful tune that deserved to be preached like the Sermon on the Mount and orchestrally reinforced to the multitude.

The whole work deserves Falletta's high esteem, with perhaps an exception for the "scherzo" episode, which felt a little academic to me. Clearly, however, this piece is a major representation of this much-admired composer, well-knit, passionate and indivisible.

The concert closed with more passionate music, brought off with such style that few in the audience seemed to mind a running time of over two hours.  Like the Kodaly, Elgar's "In the South" (Alassio) is a piece of geographically oriented nostalgia. It's a consequence of the English composer and his wife having gratefully escaped a dreary London winter so that he could compose his first symphony in sunny Italy. The sojourn was such an overwhelming pleasure that the welcome distraction from the symphony resulted in this work.

It's not Italian-sounding, as Falletta noted in remarks from the podium, but rather all Sir Edward. The rising brass figures at the start speak to the uplift Alassio gave the composer. Tolling church bells are suggested, and some typically Elgarian orchestra chatter probably represents the energy of Italian street life. Among the calmer portions, the harp-accompanied viola solo, splendidly played by Yu Jin, wove a particularly lovely spell. Spellbinding, in fact, was the essence of the whole concert.

1 comment:

  1. Re: In The South, I do feel that the harmonic palette in the Elgar is strikingly reminiscent of Strauss, especially the way he expands the top end of the musical spectrum ala Don Juan. In fact at one point in the piece, he has the instruments playing what sounds like repetitions of the natural overtone series, emphasizing this effect even more. I found Ms. Falletta's comparisons with Harold in Italy fascinating, although the viola solo in In The South is so brief that one hardly notices it. It is also typical of many of the British composers of the 20th Century to feature viola solos in many pieces and to expand the viola repertoire in general, perhaps in deference to the raft of great English viola players of the day (e.g. Lionel Tertis, York Bowen, Rebecca Clarke, etc.). Overall, a wonderful program - the audience sure seemed to think so!