Matthew Kraemer expressed gratitude and relief that the ensemble he directs, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, was appearing Sunday evening before an in-person audience for the first time in 15 months.
| Rengel gave a stirring account of Barber's concerto.|
But in other remarks to a socially distanced audience at Carmel's Palladium, the conductor lifted up the significance of bringing forward some of the achievements of American symphonic music in the 20th century. Four works made up the program, chief among them the much-loved Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, with Rubén Rengel, a 2018 honoree of the Sphinx program, as soloist.
Given the finished 1949 version of Barber's opus 14, the concert was a snapshot of American composition in the 1940s. By that decade, buoyed by the contributions of European refugees, new classical music here had consolidated the gains made by 20th-century modernism before largely giving way to more difficult, abstruse styles that started to dominate the American academy in the 1950s. It was the decade of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Third Symphony, among other landmarks, and the triumphs of, and occasional emergence from, "Americanist" styles by composers as diverse as Roy Harris and Elliott Carter. Kraemer was right to call attention to, and make this attempt to rectify, the unjustified obscurity of this music in today's repertoire.
Besides the Barber concerto, the concert comprised Howard Swanson's "Short Symphony," David Diamond's "Rounds for String Orchestra," and Walter Piston's "Sinfonietta." There was some scrambling to come up with a crisp account of Diamond's score in the first movement, but the ensemble jelled in the second, buoyed by the vivid string harmonies. A return to fast music in the third brought about better coordination, helped by more sharply defined accents and a wealth of shared material, rich in syncopation and imitative section entries.
The orchestra on its own also showed its wonted radiance in the program finale by Piston, whose achievements included a much-used textbook on orchestration. Though his music is reserved emotionally, it naturally features colorful orchestration. The first movement has rhythmic variety and an effective quiet ending. The balance Piston achieved between his Yankee roots and his Italian heritage was nicely displayed in the self-contained lyricism of the second movement, with much attractive wind writing well-executed in this concert. The finale put a nice cap on the intermissionless concert, with a strong steady pulse given extra energy by a fugato climax.
Piston's "Sinfonietta" made a welcome contrast with the Swanson piece that preceded it. The work by one of the lesser known African-American composers lives up to its title. Its brevity (like all the works on this concert, there are three movements) is made substantial by the tight variety of musical ideas the composer packed into its 11-minute frame. Sometimes it gives the impression of shortness of breath, but I liked the way Kraemer defined the music's internal variety, as the orchestra gave breathing room to the score.
The Venezuelan violinist, whose teachers have included Jaime Laredo, long the jury chairman of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, presented a richly inflected, emotionally engaging interpretation of the Barber concerto. From the first movement on, the unanimity of soloist and orchestra was evident, and Rengel displayed a deep-seated affinity for the music's lyrical import.
The achingly tender slow movement, which by no means stands in the shadow of the unusually gentle first movement, featured good oboe and horn solos, reveling in the Palladium acoustics. The climaxes were stirring, hinting at the driven energy required for the perpetual-motion finale. There the coordination was mostly first-rate, with enough pinpoint precision to convey the shared exhilaration that Barber commanded in his durable neo-romantic manner.
The orchestra looked and sounded good. The sight of musicians identically black-masked (except for winds) kept reminding me of another worthy American composition, from an earlier decade, that wouldn't have been out of place in such a program in such an era as we're living through: Roger Sessions' "Black Maskers" Suite. But maybe the visual pun would have overridden everything else, and Sessions' score would require extra rehearsals. As it was, this concert properly put a good representation of 20th-century American symphonic music in the forefront.