Sunday, May 16, 2021

Swept up in the spirit of the dance, ISO continues 'Spring Inspirations' with Joshua Weilerstein

Joshua Weilerstein, ISO guest conductor 

Constrained though its concert presentation has to be because of the pandemic, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra nonetheless can do its part to sweep aside continuing anxiety, given its renewed vim after 14 months away.

On Saturday night, Joshua Weilerstein, conducting the orchestra in the second "Spring Inspirations" concert marking its return to performance for audiences at its Hilbert Circle Theatre home, brought that spirit of revival and zest to a concert capped by Beethoven's ecstatic Symphony No. 7 in A major. Like its predecessor on Thursday, the concert was dedicated to the memory of philanthropist Christel DeHaan.

The concert opened with an overture in symphonic form by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a composer sometimes called "the black Mozart." He is among the composers of color lately being brought to the fore in the intensified diversity quest that pervades the world of classical music.

His Overture to "L'amant anonyme" (The Anonymous Lover) is worth programming as representative of the vigor and adaptability of the classical style apart from its "big three" (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven).  The fast-paced finale introducing this comic opera found the violins scrappy on their return to the main theme, but otherwise the performance seemed solidly put together. 

Following up on his prominence Thursday in Richard Strauss's op. 7 Serenade,  in  Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" Nathan Hughes contributed his penetrating, well-shaped sound as the ISO's first-oboe guest. His regular job is the similar post with the long-idled Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. 

Under Weilerstein's baton, the shadowy as well as the brightly nostalgic aspects of the score were illuminated across the four movements.  Hughes was particularly effective leading the way among the winds in the Minuet.

After a blurred initial chord, the Beethoven symphony quickly became shipshape in this performance. Conducting without score, Weilerstein imparted a young adept's vigor to the work from the onset of the main theme, which follows a lengthy, portentous introduction. Accents became precise and stunning, a feature that nearly overwhelmed the performance in the Scherzo and finale. But the performance communicated high excitement throughout.

The strings showed aplomb in putting across the expressive variety of the second movement, which was given its proper Andante (roughly, "walking") momentum. Understandably, perhaps, the horns had not yet attained their wonted midseason consistency. The Scherzo displayed an acute rhythmic profile in this performance, and its contrasting Trio was not overloaded with dignity, as one sometimes hears.

Weilerstein was clearly making his interpretation all of a piece. Robustness got the upper hand, and if the last movement crowns the composition as "the apotheosis of the dance" (a phrase that has attached itself like a barnacle to this mighty ship), there was a relentless, mounting energy that suggested foot-stomping vitality. 

As indicated by the occasional windmill motion of his left hand, Weilerstein was also drawing forth the music's vertiginous quality — the sense that a dance's dizzying exuberance is nearly out of control. The balance was pretty well maintained; I'm recalling two famous poems in which this vertical/horizontal combination of keeping the beat throbbing and being whirled around vie for supremacy: William Carlos Williams' "The Dance" and Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." 

Its few flaws aside, this was for me the most stirring, most youthful concert performance of a Beethoven symphony since I heard Michael Tilson Thomas in Miami Beach conduct the New World Symphony in the Fifth nearly 20 years ago. Such an unexpected reminder of a past peak concert experience is always welcome, as is the mere presence of the ISO in action once again.

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