Saturday, June 1, 2019

A weekend of Rachmaninoff concertos from the ISO and guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson

The one-composer concert is a niche concept in programming live music that less than a handful of composers are thought to deserve. Just about everyone will agree it works with Beethoven, of course. But then people will come up with short lists that will soon be at odds with others'. (Mine for symphony orchestra would have a place for Arnold Schoenberg — I hear crickets.)

And then there are two sometimes opposed considerations: marketing or artistic merit? Is this the Netflix "binging" menace spread to classical music, or is there a special excitement to such concentration that brings pizazz to any season? Might the one-composer concert also be an entertaining vehicle for (gasp!) educating the public?

Garrick Ohlsson: A formidable American concert pianist since 1970.
When it comes to Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2018-19 classical series has filled its next-to-last weekend with the Russian's piano concertos: the four numbered ones plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Judging from the size and enthusiasm of Friday night's debut, the marketability was there, particularly given the popularity of the piano soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, and his rapport with ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski.

Now that modernism has been put in its place as less a sign of inevitable progress than a raging tributary of the mainstream, the 20th-century composer who most conspicuously resisted it seems to be as fashionable as ever.

That popularity survived the disdain of advocates of 20th-century progressivism. The fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians includes a Rachmaninoff entry that has seemed scandalous to those expecting a more neutral tone from reference works: "His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios," runs a particularly barbed sentence.

Another source notes that Rachmaninoff "based his style on the remnants of a dying tradition." This criticism, satirized in a memorably sarcastic phrase by Rachmaninoff champion Harold Schonberg, pegged the composer as "a creative nobody, crying his Russian tears at the feet of Tchaikovsky."

Friday's concert opened with the most respected of Rachmaninoff's piano-orchestra works, in which the composer's melancholy strain works with particular charm and rigor. The Paganini Rhapsody uses the violin virtuoso's most famous piece, the 24th Caprice for solo violin, as the basis for a set of variations. Some of them go ingeniously far afield from the original, especially in the abstracted dreamy lyricism of the 18th variation,  and in the recurring use of the medieval "Dies irae" chant melody.

The orchestration sparkles more than in many of Rachmaninoff's other works involving the symphony orchestra, including long stretches of the popular Second Symphony. Ohlsson's performance in the solo role was capricious within bounds. There is a buoyancy about some of the writing that is more convincing than the often glaring vigor of the Fourth Piano Concerto, which shows that Rachmaninoff did not have Tchaikovskyan strengths to exhibit when the mood is positive. In Op. 40, he also wasn't working with his lyrical gift at full capacity; the reflective atmosphere of the slow movement is expressed by a rather banal tune. The composition has moments of mystery that the sympathetic interaction of Ohlsson and Urbanski showcased, especially in the finale, but the piece isn't from Rachmaninoff's top drawer, in comparison with the roughly contemporaneous Rhapsody (op. 43).

After intermission came the universal favorite among 20th-century concertos in the romantic vein: No. 2 in C minor, op. 18. Ohlsson's willingness to be playful with the music, so much a feature of his performance in the Paganini Rhapsody, was taken only to the point of consorting well with the dour quality of many of the work's most memorable themes and transitional passages. He took delight in exhibiting the full dynamic spectrum of the solo part, from the stormy to the becalmed. There needs to be an almost literal "joky" quality in the finale, which bears the heading "Allegro scherzando." The music is not explicit about its humor, but what should prevail — as it did here — is a robust sense of exploration, even when traveling through the shadows. What brings everyone to their feet at the end is not just the prodigious technical display this concerto demands, but the sense that a hallmark of great art is the companionship it offers us as we take in life's depths and shallows, as we keep drawing on whatever reservoirs of resilience sustain us. Those may include the overfamiliar: As he did in last year's engagement with the ISO, Ohlsson offered as an encore the evergreen Prelude in C-sharp minor.

So, yes, an all-Rachmaninoff program now and then justifies itself. There are two more of them to come this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

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