Sunday, May 5, 2019

Wagner, Bruckner, Berg: ISO concert probes the roots of classical music's evolution into the modern world

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend drew back the curtain on the shifts that overcame classical
German composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher
music as it changed irrevocably. The program, fashioned shrewdly upon the foundation of late Romanticism, was certain to excite devotees of the cultural ferment out of which came modernism, yet also presumably to reassure the traditionally minded.

The music of Alban Berg and Anton Bruckner, both indebted to the trailblazing of Richard Wagner, shares features with much of the mainstream out of which symphony concerts draw sustenance today. Saturday's concert comprised all three composers, under the astute guidance of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher.

After this concert in Hilbert Circle Theatre, classical programming for the rest of the season largely re-emphasizes two composers who were in some sense throwbacks: Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Much of what still succeeds with audiences in the 21st century resonates to the heartbeat of the 19th century. Fortunately, harbingers of the world to come, particularly in Wagner and Berg, are embodied in what this weekend's audiences heard, particularly with the essential contributions of guest soloist Michelle DeYoung.

DeYoung is an American mezzo-soprano with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her birthplace, and California. Program biographies, hers included, nowadays tend to be career surveys, and would be more interesting if they seemed to be about people more than resum├ęs. No point in going into other biographical matters here, however. What is most pertinent is the stature of DeYoung's appearance with the ISO Saturday evening.

The highlight was her dramatically vivid, vocally stunning Isolde in Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from the opera "Tristan and Isolde."  For concert purposes, the composer linked the orchestral introduction to the work's final scene capturing his heroine's farewell to her lover Tristan. In Wagner's carefully intricate plan, of course, the music suggests no parting whatsoever, but rather a transfiguration of the illicit affair into eternal union through death.
Michelle DeYoung sang Berg and Wagner superbly.

DeYoung brought seemingly limitless resources to the task. To impersonate Isolde in the final scene, she had to sum up the significance of the doomed relationship in a manner that goes beyond the limits of all earthly love — just as Wagner intended. Isolde is usually a soprano role, but DeYoung displayed strengths in all registers. Her vocal production and sustaining power sounded without breaks. Something more than thorough training, familiarity with the music, and decades of experience (she's 51) on the concert and opera stage was available in DeYoung's armory. Vital as those were in making her performance special, she also commanded the ability to lift — in secure partnership with Pintscher and the orchestra — an individual voice through Wagner's sometimes tortured poetry into another sphere. Though the word Liebestod (love-death) applies to the final scene for all time, Wagner thought of the Prelude specifically as the yearning for love capable of superseding physical death and of Isolde's final aria as transfiguration, a surmounting of mortality through the spirit.

You can read in the text how Isolde contemplates her dead lover and brings to bear all five senses in expressing the love experience before finally settling on the joy of becoming one with Tristan and the "Welt-Atem," another one of those compound words so beloved of Germans that is  variously translated as "world-soul" or "world-breath." How to communicate that rarefied condition via mere flesh and blood is a singer's ultimate labor in mastering the role. DeYoung showed that mastery in the power and effective distribution of her expressive skills, always with enough to spare that she matched the full force of the orchestra in the aria's climaxes, especially in the lengthiest of its series of questions.

Pintscher set the stage with his control and eloquence in the Prelude, which the peerless Wagner scholar Ernest Newman, alluding to the Prelude's having been written before the opera itself,  described as "a perfectly organized piece of mood-music.... a symphonic epitome... of an unwritten drama." So it unfolded Saturday evening, with the pauses between phrases near the start stated with as much deliberation as the sounded notes. It encapsulated the emotions as well as laying out the building blocks of what DeYoung was about to sing so well.

She also put abundant life into the love poetry that Alban Berg set to music in "Seven Early Songs," which opened the concert. Berg took hints of orchestral color and harmonic ambiguity from Wagner; his later works were to impress his personality with particular Romantic emphasis through his teacher Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. In this suite of songs, written between 1905 and 1908, he drew upon seven German poets. The moods range from the actively passionate to the relaxed; the orchestration highlights each one. The woven tapestry of clarinets was especially telling in the intimate "In the Room."  The ardor of voice and orchestra alike rose to great heights in the song that followed, "Ode to Love."

Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 in D minor occupied the concert's long second half. My memories are dim about the ISO's last performance of this piece, but I'm confident in saying that this is a much better orchestra than it was in 1990 — more flexible, better balanced, richer in tone, simply more spruce. Pintscher elicited a performance that not only had clarity, but also a way of making that clarity speak more fully. After all, Bruckner, steeped as he was in the organ's architectural resources of color and volume,  is not Richard Strauss — little worry about getting lost in the underbrush.

What has to come out is the meaning of contrasts that are sometimes as abrupt as an organist's ability to alter the sound palette with the flick of a finger. These contrasts were made all the more explicit by Pintscher's having beefed up the brass by one player each (as far as I could tell) over what the score requires. The loud stuff spoke with Stentor's voice. In the finale, Pintscher elicited a way of making the easygoing passages seem otherworldly in comparison. The performance got the most out of the score's quasi-prayerful moments, and thus came close to making explicit the composer's provincial piety. This Bruckner Third will be resounding for me for some time to come, as I hope it will for many in Saturday's audience, along with the glow of the DeYoung/Pintscher partnership.

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