Saturday, May 11, 2019

ISO concert: Fast-rising piano star Trifonov plays the Schumann concerto; Urbanski advances his Brahms cycle

Daniil Trifonov seems to be joining the history of Russian pianists who quickly attained legendary status. In the
Daniil Trifonov, who actually does know the right way to address the keyboard.
confining days of the Soviet Union, there was an element of Cold War advocacy when the West first became exposed to Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Lazar Berman, and Vladimir Feltsman.

Nowadays the two-nation rivalry is less ideologically pitched, but the fascination with Russian pianists carries over whenever a new talent and personality from that motherland seem to stand out. On Friday night, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience got to hear Trifonov interpret Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto with rapture and a sense of mission.

The stamp Trifonov put on the work — fully in accord with music director Krzysztof Urbanski's management of the orchestra — emphasized the composer's dreamy, pensive side, to which in 1831 he gave an identity as Eusebius, over the more assertive, flamboyant Florestan. Here's a good description about this division within the inner Schumann. A composer's self-description should not always function as a kind of scrim through which you should hear the music, but the polarity dependably functions across the breadth of Schumann's music.

I felt this approach worked, for, after the explosive opening, the piano sets out the agenda with a spell of melodious brooding. The pedal was used generously but not to the point of obscuring the tender passages. Sometimes the more explosive episodes verged on excessive resonance. Still, Trifonov remained in control. His focus on the Eusebius side of Schumann was reinforced by frequent gazes heavenward. More often with him, however, it was head down toward the keyboard, the body language fully conveying the message: "There is nothing in the world more important than what I'm doing now."

The audience, somewhat smaller than I would have thought for mainstream repertoire and the visit of a rising star, was rapt throughout. There were tempo fluctuations that made sense, though they required Urbanski's locking in visually to what Trifonov was up to. Flexibility was the watchword. Some of the orchestral statements were beautifully set in the spirit of the soloist's playing, especially the dynamics and pacing of the violas and cellos in the second movement.

In the finale, Florestan got a turn in the saddle after two movements of Eusebius' gentle dominance. Near the end, the excitement in this performance ratcheted up, but always with a common purpose, as though piano and orchestra were an eloping couple fleeing just a few steps ahead of the bride's astonished parents. Called back for an encore, Trifonov offered Schumann's softspoken effusion Op. 99, No. 1 ("Bunte Bl├Ątter").

The concert opened with a co-commissioned work that reacquainted the ISO audience with Kevin Puts, a 47-year-old composer who also wrote the Gala Opening Concert showcase for soprano Renee Fleming in 2017, "Letters from Georgia," inspired by correspondence of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. The new work is "Silent Night Elegy," a distillation  for concert purposes of the opera "Silent Night," which focuses on the 1914 Christmas Eve truce between enemy troops in the first months of World War I. The staged work has been produced several times; in 2014, Cincinnati Opera presented a couple of memorable performances.

"Silent Night Elegy" has some brutal episodes that bring all orchestral forces into full play. But it also has the touches of whimsy and thoughts of home that must have animated French and Scottish troops on one side, German soldiers on the other, to get together after hearing the other side's celebration across no-man's-land. Fraternization with the enemy being absolutely forbidden, the men's superiors reacted with fury and anger as warfare resumed. That response is also represented in Puts' music. But especially touching was the way fragmentary figures coalesce into a viola melody and horn chorale as the "Elegy" moves toward a hushed conclusion.

After intermission, Urbanski led the orchestra in an alert, sensitively inflected reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90. Friday's account of the work revealed the plasticity of phrase and accent the music director has drawn from the orchestra in a decade-long tenure whose conclusion was just announced. This genial masterpiece could hardly have had a more insightful, unforced interpretation. Interplay of the ensemble sections was neatly judged, and everyone seemed to be playing as naturally as breathing. It was the sort of performance that is likely to bring more than a few listeners into uneasy anticipation of Urbanski's departure in 2021. It all depends on how successful the ISO is in selecting a successor who preserves aspects of his legacy that can contribute, almost paradoxically, to a freshly conceived realization of the music director's role with a major 21st-century symphony orchestra.

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