Sunday, September 15, 2019

ISO's gala opening-night guest raises the "child prodigy" designation to a whole new level

Her media profile has been impressive on its own terms in print and broadcast, and helps account for the household-name sort of
Alma at home, from one of the latest media features (New York Times, June)
reception Alma Deutscher got Saturday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its annual gala opening concert. Cheers, whoops, repeated standing ovations, and a few lusty shouts on the order of "We love you, Alma!" punctuated the atmosphere.

But the 14-year-old musician has a well-grounded reason for being subject to the kind of exposure, vastly expanded in the digital age, that has accompanied extraordinarily gifted artists from the 18th-century birth of public concerts up to the present.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is among many eminent musicians who have expressed open astonishment at Deutscher's violin and piano playing and the facility and charm she displays in her compositions, which include a full-length opera.

Urbanski engaged in some entertaining chat midway with the young phenomenon from the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, whose decor echoed that in the lobby in the amount of healthy shrubbery sparkling with strings of tiny lights.

The conductor seemed almost tongue-tied marveling at Deutscher's precocious accomplishments. The brief interview brought out matters that the prodigy has elaborated upon in interviews, including her affinity for melody, explicit rejection of "ugly music" to match our times, and her attraction to Vienna — where she and her family now live and whose cultural pinnacle as an imperial capital is forever tied to the waltz.

The waltz bulked large in the program, familiarly in the case of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., whose "Fledermaus" Overture and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" were hearty bookends. It also linked specifically to the creative side of Alma Deutscher: Her freshly minted "Siren Sounds Waltz" received its American premiere.

The composer was not onstage for that performance, but it proved to be quite the appetizer for the main course: a movement each from her Violin Concerto in G minor and her Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, with the composer as soloist in both.

"Siren Sounds Waltz" opens with a well-managed urban cacophony keyed to the brief pattern of police sirens in Vienna. The thick melange of sound impressions offers as much dissonance as you're likely to hear in a Deutscher work, and was justifiably linked to the music of Richard Strauss by Urbanski during their conversation. The influence could be detected even after the texture thinned out and the waltz idiom came to the fore.

That Strauss, no relation to the Waltz King but also no mean composer of waltzes (as his operatic masterpiece "Der Rosenkavalier" confirms), seems less an influence on most of her music than another precocious composer in the Austro-German mainstream, Felix Mendelssohn. I thought of that particularly at the most fetching moment in the violin concerto excerpt — the re-entry of the orchestra as the solo cadenza ended. It had the gentle savoir-faire of the North German composer in how he re-introduces the orchestra after the cadenza in his Violin Concerto in E minor (which will be heard next weekend as the ISO begins its Classical Series).

Deutscher's singing tone fitted hand-in-glove with her compositional manner in the Allegro vivace e scherzando  movement of her violin concerto. As both performer and composer, there is a directness about her music-making that doesn't eschew sugary content and even a kind of cheerful banality. I was more moved by the slow movement of her piano concerto; at the start, the solo oboe (tenderly played by Jennifer Christen) was attractive against the bare accompaniment pattern Deutscher offered at the keyboard.

She had told Urbanski that she developed the music out of sadness at her grandmother's death, and the poignancy became pronounced as the movement took a serious turn. It was another evocation, at least in mood, of the way seriousness takes over the corresponding slow movement of that Mendelssohn violin concerto.  I also felt that his "Songs Without Words" may be a ghostly ancestor and companion of the Deutscher muse.

The way music flows out of her was illustrated when Urbanski presided over an improvisational challenge. The names of four notes were drawn out of a top hat individually by three volunteers and the conductor: C-sharp, E, C, and F-sharp. After musing silently for a few minutes, Alma-as-pianist came up with another waltz inspiration based on a set of notes that probably didn't seem congenial at first. She made them so, however, and it was shrewd of her to arrange the four-note motif in an ascending sequence. It allowed her to incorporate her temperamental uplift into the spontaneous creation. There were also touches of the sense of humor that are reflected unabashedly elsewhere in her music.

The concert's delights, keyed to what will probably be the soloist's eternally youthful spirit, were nicely capped by the ISO's encore. Conventional though it is in Viennese-themed concerts, it was entirely fitting here for this gala crowd to be sent on its merry way with Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March."


  1. Expect nothing less than brilliance from Alma Deutscher.

  2. One hundred years ago, my Mom was playing the piano for the ‘silent movies.’ Eighty years ago, with the help of her tutelage, I began singing in choirs and, inspired by Robert Shaw, conducted them as well. In all that time, I have never, ever, seen anyone like Alma. She is beyond amazing — I can only imagine what she will do with choral music, perhaps providing us with a symphonic oratorio beyond anything ever imagined.

  3. I agree, Dr. Schmidt! I have known a number of real geniuses so far in my life, and have never encountered one the caliber of Alma. She is really something special.....