Sunday, January 26, 2020

Aggressive title aside, ICO's 'Dominance and Defiance' could have won anyone over

Her full investment in a recent concerto was evident.
The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Saturday weighed in with the obligatory tribute to Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, but the performance of the Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93, conveyed much more than a sense of obligation.

In common with the other two pieces on the program at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the Beethoven salute had a feeling of genuine commitment, even touches of rapture. Matthew Kraemer conducted an account that was straightforward, free of mannerisms, and responsive to the work's variety of texture and mood.

The notable replacement of the conventional slow movement by an "Allegretto scherzando," with its pervasive ticking, was droll enough to avoid the purely mechanical. The look backward to the minuet, which Beethoven had earlier transformed into third-movement scherzos, had simply the touch of nostalgia at which the ICO hinted in its concert marketing. But clearly the work overall could not be confused with the burgeoning genius of the late 18th century. It is a fit companion to the landmarks of the seventh and ninth symphonies.

The finale alone is proof enough of that. The "Allegro vivace"  may be the most remarkable example of Beethoven's ability to maintain a through line of focused energy despite complexity of rhythm and adventure among tonalities. It certainly foreshadows aspects of Igor Stravinsky. There ought to have been more precision from the violins at the very start, but Kraemer's honing of pace and exactitude ruled the day as the movement proceeded.

The ICO strings took advantage of the music director's showcase for them in Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor, op. 110a. Dominated by slow movements (there are three Largos), the five-movement arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the composer's eighth string quartet was tenderly and powerfully played. There was excellent soloing from assistant concertmaster Sarah Page and, in the finale, a steady, keening high-register solo by principal cellist Marjorie Lange Hanna.

Amy Porter, the concert's featured soloist, seemed at one with the third work, Michael Daugherty's "Trail of Tears," a concerto for flute and orchestra. She premiered the piece a decade ago, and has clearly achieved a close identification with its astonishing interpretive and technical demands; she has recorded it with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. The music is a deeply felt evocation of the pain and persistence of Native Americans upon their forced removal from the southeastern United States nearly two centuries ago.

Extended techniques are exploited, but without overreliance on trickery. Conventional flute tone production is important to convey reflectiveness, including hints of sacred practices, as well as exuberance and assertiveness, notably in the multi-metered finale, "sun dance." Bent notes, like sighs or exhaustion, lend pathos to the score, and there is also flutter-tonguing and forceful blowing without sounded tones.

I heard no American Indianist cliches. The orchestration is immensely varied, with conspicuous percussion involvement. "Incantation," the second movement, cast a particularly hushed spell. Porter's appearance with a modern piece in which such embedding of the guest artist with the vehicle shone so brightly seems to me a high point in the ICO's recent history.

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