Saturday, January 18, 2020

Week #2 of "BTHVN2020": Sublime Eroica, revealing Triple Concerto, zesty new piece

It took me a week to discern that the sculpture under the name of the honoree in the  Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby
Krzysztof Urbanski: Led an "Eroica" of lasting stature.
was not abstract and Calderesque but a portrait in floating white shapes of Ludwig van Beethoven himself.

Such is the price of glossing over some details while focusing on others — which may indeed deserve your focus, but still.... Why not pay attention to everything? one asks oneself as age forces the realization that there is not much time left.

The music on offer this weekend (there's a repeat this afternoon, which I heartily recommend) captivated me thoroughly, apart from mild annoyance that there's too much note-spinning in the finale of Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, which occupied most of the first half of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's program.

Dejan Lazic: His commissioned piece captures Beethoven's rowdy side.
My attention was riveted from the start: A helpful introduction to the commissioned piece, Dejan Lazic's "S.C.H.E.rzo," was happily given by the composer and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski in dialogue from the stage. The work itself, adhering to the roughly five-minute limit required of the new works, offered a rousing peek into one aspect of Beethoven's soul: his sense of humor, rambunctious and sometimes puzzling to his contemporaries. "An unlicked bear," his older contemporary Luigi Cherubini called him.

Lazic builds his piece on the German musical spelling of the first four letters of the word "scherzo," the designation of those movements through which Beethoven pioneered the boisterous change he imposed upon the conventional symphonic minuet. The commissioned composer also transforms material from the program's linked work of the master, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica), and weaves it in various guises into his structure. It's an intricate piece, but it immediately gets across.

The genius to whom the world is paying tribute on the 250th anniversary of his birth delved into music's meaning with a novel blend of expansiveness and concentration, as well as the technical and expressive skill to give order to his wild imagination. But the wildness sometimes issued in social behavior in which rage often rubbed shoulders with rough drollery. Lazic has captured some of this, while honoring such strictly musical applications of Beethoven's personality as its sudden surges of force. Along the way, there is a relaxed, almost lush episode, and near the end the orchestral piano attains prominence, as if Lazic were honoring an eminent concert-pianist predecessor. In the last few measures, I heard (whether they're intended or not) suggestions of Ivesian nose-thumbing.

Austin Huntington: Primus inter pares in Beethoven.
Lazic then appeared in his concert-pianist persona to take on the fluent role of supporting soloist for violinist Benjamin Schmid and cellist Austin Huntington. Beethoven's piano-trio set-up, with the orchestra supporting more than interacting, was an innovation in the first decade of the nineteenth century. As Marianne Williams Tobias' program note points out, the Triple Concerto has endured disdain often since then. And as I said above, despite an energizing change of meter near the end and the appealing vivacity of the Polish-inspired theme, the third movement is somewhat tedious.

I admired the way the soloists worked together throughout. The initial impression that Lazic was being
overassertive faded in the course of the three movements. Particularly striking was Huntington's engaging manner with the prominent cello part. In the second movement, Urbanski drew from the strings a hushed introduction that seemed perfectly designed to match the style of their ISO colleague. The smooth elegance of Huntington's playing was a hallmark of the performance. especially in lyrical passages.

One way to come at the revolutionary aura of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony may be to reverse an old description of another revolutionary work, Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," as the 20th century's "Eroica" Symphony. Wind the clock backwards, and think of the German composer's Op. 55 as the 19th century's "Rite of Spring" and you may be able to reset your ears to appreciate how groundbreaking the "Eroica" was for its time, how it may have seemed both endless and lawless to conservative ears.

Urbanski led a performance that both saluted the work's edgy quality, its bold push against "enoughness," and honored its claim to be a symphony for all time in addition to its own. In the first movement, what Friday's performance did was to make the "subito" dynamic shifts sound not just sudden but also essential to the fabric. The momentum was firmly set, and those "sforzandos" stuck out of the seamless texture without poking holes in it.

By the time the ISO reached the finale, nothing had been amiss apart from imprecise work in the violin sections as the Scherzo: Allegro got under way. That may have been forced by the sudden emotional and technical adjustment required by the contrast with the preceding movement (about which more to come). The Scherzo in particular displayed the glory of the natural horns in the famous Trio section; here was the woodland flavor of the original instrument, a timbre (shared by four horns in Friday's performance) speaking of the hunt and other outdoor signaling functions of the brass heritage. The effect was spine-tingling.

Speaking of physical reactions, however, it almost embarrasses me to report that I was near tears throughout the second movement, headed "Marcia funebre" (funeral march). The theme was stated with such poignancy and its dynamics observed so scrupulously that something approaching sobs of grief could be readily felt in the performance. The emotional immediacy was evident in every phrase. Everything sounded under exquisite control, but in a masterly design, emotion doesn't need to take a back seat in a performance of such well-judged detail.

I couldn't help thinking back to listening to the radio on Nov. 22, 1963, when I was a college freshman in Kalamazoo. The classical station played the first part of the "Marcia funebre" in between reports from Dallas. I remember how wrenching it was for the broadcast to cut away from Beethoven to the latest bulletin just as the music switched to the major mode — for heroism, especially when it demands the ultimate sacrifice, needs both what was lost to be mourned and the meaning of the loss to be celebrated. That's the balance this movement exemplifies like no other piece of music. The solo oboe introduces that episode, and at the end Jennifer Christen deserved the first solo bow, after Urbanski took his, for her excellence here and elsewhere in the "Eroica."

The march form is inevitably part of what warrior culture has left us. We may mourn all sorts of deaths, but death in battle has a stature, represented ritualistically, that even pacifists find hard to dismiss. And, true,  Beethoven's progeny left all sorts of monuments to the pain of death and the promise of transcendence, even when neither explicit heroism nor the carnage of war is a factor.

But you can take your cornucopia of symphonic requiems, your Strauss "Death and Transfiguration" and your Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony and put them in a respectable bucket, and the liturgically and programmatically free "Eroica" will still tower over them. As Aaron Copland said in one of his marvelous little books: Beethoven is a great man walking down the street; Mahler is an actor portraying a great man walking down the street. Nowhere is that great-man status truer than in the "Eroica."

And on a day in which we learned that our current commander-in-chief blasted his generals as "a bunch of dopes and babies," I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed a Beethoven Third (particularly a "Marcia funebre")
of this quality —  of this abundance of passion, insight, poise, and rectitude.

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