Saturday, June 12, 2021

ISO closes its severely shortened 2020-21 concert season with distinction

 It has been quite moving to hear and see the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in its home once again, particularly so Friday in the prominence its concert gave to two of its musicians to get the public exposure they deserve.

Their identification as key parts of the ISO's artistic mission has been interrupted by the pandemic's "Babylonian Captivity" of the orchestra — in which its vitality away from its real base, the Hilbert Circle Theatre, also entailed the inability to exercise its artistry as an ensemble and host of usually excellent guest artists.

I speak particularly of associate, now resident, conductor Jacob Joyce and concertmaster Kevin Lin. Joyce was on the podium for a program nearly up to the exposure the orchestra enjoyed, concert after concert, before March 2020. 

The lack of an intermission, part of the COVID-19 restrictions on public indoor events, has forced some shrinkage. Yet this weekend's two concerts, which wrap up the core 2020-21 season, come close to restoring  an approach to "the old normal." Last chance to get that feeling for the time being? Today at 5:30.

Joyce opened the concert, shaping the music batonless, with Haydn's Symphony No. 85 in B-flat, the most buoyant and ingratiating of the Austrian composer's Paris symphonies. Especially effective was how the orchestra treated the second-movement "Romanze," a set of variations on a French tune so appealing that it is said to have been a favorite of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. 

Kevin Lin displayed the influence of one of his teachers, master of  Romanticism Aaron Rosand.     

Dynamic contrast in echoing phrases helped make the movement seem especially indicative of Haydn's ability to communicate with unforced charm. Joyce drew a relaxed suavity from the orchestra that seemed to send a message of welcome to the necessarily small audience. There were tempo adjustments in the Trio of the third movement's Minuet that verged on the cutesy, but this impression may have been the result of incomplete unanimity: How much do we slow down here? Which notes should be slightly extended before the Minuet returns?

Lin came into play with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto in G minor, the most enduring of its composer's considerable output. Without seeming to patronize it or giving it a critical pat on the head, this is an adorable concerto. It has authentic Romantic heft without seeming conflicted about it. Its tunes and the aptness of the  way they're decorated are unstinting, and the orchestration supports the soloist well without dominating the partnership.

This weekend's soloist, who was to return in comradely fashion to sit in the concertmaster chair for Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, brought an individualistic glow and personal warmth to the piece. His tone displayed a suitable variety, yet the through-line was an intimacy and revelatory quality that made the solo violin's role feel operatic, but as much recitative as aria. 

Lin played palpably like a colleague among colleagues, and his mutual rapport with Joyce was evident. I was impressed with how well the considerable acceleration near the end of the finale held together, creating an excitement that was never slapdash.

The concert closed with one of the most popular showpieces of early 20th-century music for orchestra: the 1919 suite Igor Stravinsky made of his "Firebird" ballet. Major episodes of the ballet took their wonted, vivid places in this performance, The Infernal Dance was predictably menacing and energetic, making an apt followup to the tender music of appeal and resolution that signal the Prince's eventual use of the Firebird's magic tailfeather to free prisoners of the evil Kaschei's spell.

I want to single out among this performance's highlighting of Stravinsky's superb color palette the playing of Ivy Ringel, who's among the newer members of the ISO's principal contingent.  I don't think I've ever heard the bassoon solo in the Lullaby that heralds the final celebration more beautifully played. It seemed both technically perfect and infused with true emotion. It was a reminder that even a fairy-tale ballet can speak to reality-bound listeners when the music for it creates its own magical connection. Ringel's solo drew richly from that magic and allowed the triumphant final episode to be all the more thrilling.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Dominic Cheli brings extra flamboyance to his solo recital in APA's competition finalist series

Dominic Cheli put together a captivating recital.

 Sunday afternoon in the American Pianists Association's Classical Awards recital series, a cleverly designed program helped Dominic Cheli showcase his enormous facility and power without overemphasizing them.

Daring to put other modern pieces alongside the competition piece, Laura Kaminsky's "Alluvion," was one striking decision. In his evidently large-scale investment in music by Leslie Adams and Carl Vine, Cheli displayed his gift for finding the distinctiveness of lesser-known works. 

Along the way he placed the first of Alexander Scriabin's "Two Poems," providing an enchanting contrast to the galvanic splendor of Vine's Sonata No. 1. About 16 minutes long in this performance, the one-movement sonata moved from a tolling-bells episode into a whirlwind toccata, folded in a subdued respite, then moved back into complex virtuosity that left its mark on an ensuing slow melody near the end. No register of the instrument was left unexploited, and the variegated textures were always solidly balanced.

The piece made an effective successor to Adams' songful "Etude No. 2," which in itself occupied far different terrain from "Alluvion." Cheli's approach to Kaminsky's composition brought out its rhapsodic qualities, aided by more pedal resonance than I was aware of the first time I heard it.

The recital opened at the basis of piano repertoire today: J.S. Bach, whose keyboard music the world has become quite used to hearing on the modern piano. The hit mid-20th-century interpretations of Glenn Gould, rapid and spiky, leading to more restrained ways of finding Bach idiomatic, exemplified by Andras Schiff and others, have encouraged an enthusiastic "who needs harpsichords?" attitude toward this repertoire. 

Thus, there's room for such interpretations as Cheli offered of the French Suite No. 5 in G, which he played in a nuanced, slightly affected manner that nonetheless shed appropriate light on the music. The suite's movements were treated somewhat like "character pieces," which is not out of line considering the various dance forms from which they are derived. There were slight hesitations in the cadences, some question-and-answer coloring of passages akin to one another, and, in the Sarabande, even Chopinesque rubato. I found all of this tasteful and well-considered, though not totally appealing. Cheli's straightforward playing of the concluding Gigue was a reassuring drawing together of his expansive approach to the suite as a whole.

Nothing was more satisfying than a full display of the extraordinary virtuosity and lyrical heft already foreshadowed by the other pieces when Cheli concluded the recital with Liszt's "Reminiscences de Don Juan." It's one of many notable operatic paraphrases that the Hungarian virtuoso concocted not only to show himself off, but also to familiarize European audiences with music they may have heard about but perhaps had never heard.

 Mozart's "Don Giovanni" notably is an opera in which the atmosphere around the title character is more important than anything having to do with his dramatic vocalism. Liszt naturally was attracted to the demonic energy of the murdered Commendatore's reappearance as a stone statue to set up the notorious rake's comeuppance. Cheli's left-hand strength got ample room to project the foreboding of the opera's denouement. How could a composer so fascinated with sin as Liszt resist putting such music at the beginning? Well, of course he couldn't.

Immediately, the pianist's keen sense of drama and the suspenseful way Liszt handles transitions shone from episode to episode. The seductiveness of "La ci darem la mano" and the nonchalant bravura of "Fin ch'han del vino" followed in due course, both tunes fervently elaborated. Cheli's figuration had the right spine-tingling effect; his octaves were torrential yet clearly articulated near the end. He lent an ominous calm to the final measures, in which Liszt recalls the Commendatore's promise to attend the Don's falsely triumphant feast. Cheli's performance not only stood on its own as a well-executed spectacle, but also confirmed the intelligent design of his program.

The performance can be visited again at 8 p.m. Tuesday in a WFYI-FM broadcast.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Peter Oundjian steps in again as ISO's abbreviated concert season nears an end

Peter Oundjian, ISO guest conductor

With pandemic-related travel restrictions keeping Krzysztof Urbanski, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's outgoing music director, from putting a cap on his ten-year tenure, Peter Oundjian has stepped in once again.

In two appearances at Hilbert Circle Theatre this weekend (the second one starts at 5:30 p.m. today), Oundjian enjoys the onstage company of returning concerto favorite Garrick Ohlsson as soloist in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.

Heard in the ISO program's debut Friday night, Oundjian confirmed the directness and vitality of his conducting, not only in his sensitive partnership with Ohlsson but in the intermissionless concert's concluding work,  Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor.

An acknowledged super-interpreter of Chopin's music ever since he won the Polish competition named for

Once again, Garrick Ohlsson shines in Chopin.

the composer in 1970, Ohlsson offered a mellow, luminous account of the concerto. Everything about it seemed keyed to the piano's thoughtful entrance in the first movement. It was assured in being somewhat understated, in contrast to the orchestra's uncertain introduction at its outset.

The orchestra gained stature in its accompaniment role as Ohlsson laid out his pearly lyricism, always well articulated. In the second movement, the pianist was not excessively concerned with ringing out those octaves in the treble above orchestral tremolos, the way one often hears. Chopin's command of the orchestra never seems distinguished, but Oundjian elicited from the ISO vivid tone colors where they could be found, as in the particularly Polish, rootsy episodes of the rondo finale. Everything served to allow Ohlsson the space he deserved to inflect every measure of the score with his idiomatic mastery.

A flubbed horn solo introducing the denouement of the last movement fortunately faded in memory by the time in the Tchaikovsky Fifth when Rob Danforth stated indelibly the imperishable melody of the Andante cantabile second movement (which to our parents and grandparents surfaced as the pop hit "Moon Love"). Oundjian had the lower strings set down a soft, throbbing introduction to that tune, which helped it make its wonted, passionate impression. Subsequently, the movement's cameo portraits of wind instruments moved into and out of the spotlight glowingly.

Pacing throughout the symphony, which is so compellingly varied amid the riot of orchestral color and melodiousness, was first-rate. Oundjian's gestures looked clear and no-nonsense, all of them calculated to produce rhythmic impact and to raise the work's dramatic profile as high as a unified flow might allow.

The waltz movement locked into an authentic lilt, and in the shaping of its winning phrases, the violas were especially adept. The finale featured such an array of variation in texture and dynamics that the repeated "Fate" theme never became tedious. Every time it burst into prominence, it felt welcome, largely because the movement's variety had been so scrupulously served. It was a treat to hear our local orchestra in full cry once again, and the musicians sounded as if they were relishing the opportunity.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Living up to his medal-winning manner, Luke Hsu puts a personal stamp on an IVCI recital

Making an individual impression on listeners can't guarantee thorough satisfaction, but what Luke Hsu showed in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had the merit of not sinking into a competition-friendly style that wouldn't allow him to stand out. His technical aplomb was linked to a surging expressiveness that compelled notice and won for him the contest's bronze medal.

2018 bronze medalist Luke Hsu put together a winning program.
What I remember from how he played there, as well as from a return recital of medalists in 2019, seems to have been slightly chastened and given more focus, to judge from the Laureate Series recital Hsu presented Thursday evening at Indiana Landmarks, with  Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. 

Perhaps the enforced idleness of the pandemic has lent him perspective without neutralizing his personal engagement with the repertoire. And the elimination of "contest nerves" presumably has helped in lending mellowness and plasticity to his playing. It may also have tempted him to be a little long-winded in oral program notes from the stage, however.

I found only the opening of the program's most familiar piece, Brahms' Violin Sonata in D minor, to sound slightly bland at the start. The performance quickly took on  personality and put across the music's ingratiating vigor, calming down effectively near the end of the movement without losing the main point.

In the second movement, Hsu displayed through his phrasing and winsome tempo adjustments how much the North German composer had absorbed of his adopted hometown of Vienna. That brought this repertoire favorite fully into the program's theme: the atmosphere of the Austrian capital at the turn of the 20th century. The explosive outbursts of the finale got whole-hearted commitment without losing a whit of clarity.

Two influential figures of Vienna in the late stage of romanticism were represented before the Brahms. The first was Alexander Zemlinsky, whose 1896 Serenade in A major opened the program, and then a prodigy later known, after emigration, for his Hollywood scores, Erich Korngold. 

A certain amount of affectation suits the music of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Hsu provided that, with idiomatic concurrence from the pianist. In a suite from his incidental music to "Much Ado About Nothing," op. 11, Korngold exercised the pictorial verve and representation of fleeting emotions that were to serve him well in his movie career. Abrupt changes of direction in "The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber" and "Scene in the Garden" were linked suavely in the duo's performance. When the music to Shakespeare's comedy called for a narrower range, as in a dogged march's satirical thrust at the officiousness of Dogberry and Verges, Hsu and Chen sounded fully engaged with the Korngold wit. The suite ended brightly in a nimble "Masquerade: Hornpipe."

The Zemlinsky Serenade featured an especially attractive slow movement, with a bit of showiness in the violin melody that suggested inspiration from opera or the florid type of art song. At leisure in putting forth the music's expressiveness, Hsu even simulated the vocal technique of messa di voce, where the singer expressively raises and lowers the volume on a single held note. The rhythmic trickiness in the finale, with its recurrent pauses and charging forward, found the duo fully in accord.

The spooky Nocturne and headlong Tarantella (op. 28) of Karol Szymanowski (whose Viennese experience was the least of the four composers, concentrated in several years before the outbreak of the First World War) concluded the program. The color palette was broad, and the energy generated and sustained in the bulk of the piece swept all before it. The resulting big ovation drew from violinist and pianist a tasty bonbon by Fritz Kreisler, "Schön Rosmarin."

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Jacob Joyce helps assure continuity as new ISO season takes shape with a push toward normality


Making a step forward to help the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra solidify its artistic side for the 2021-22 season, associate conductor Jacob Joyce takes on the title of resident conductor. Details on the new season were announced today, and are accessible by linking to  the orchestra's website. (As of June 3, he was tapped to conduct two ISO concerts next week that were to have been under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski, the departing music director. The ISO announced that travel restrictions related to the pandemic forced Urbanski to cancel his farewell appearances in Hilbert Circle Theatre.)

Jacob Joyce: new ISO resident conductor
A representative of the under-30 generation now making its mark in classical music, Joyce has been been on the conducting staff since 2018. He told me that his new position essentially continues the duties of the job he was hired for three years ago.

The difference is that the need for continuity needed to be shored up in the absence of a new music director — during what the young conductor describes as "a semi-vacuum of artistic leadership." Urbanski's tenure ends this month; a frequent ISO guest conductor, Jun Märkl, has been engaged as artistic advisor. There is another important transition on the artistic side: director of artistic planning Katie McGuinness has departed to take on a similar post with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.


"I will be able to advise the new director: what we need to do going forward, what to improve," Joyce said. Assuming the present format continues, even with some expected relaxation of Covid-19 protocols, the resident conductor "will do a lot of Discovery shows, Side-by-Side, family shows," plus a subscription concert in 2021-22, he told me. Some vacancies, including three principals, will need to be filled as well, a decision in which Joyce expects to take part.

Joyce has already made his mark in expanding the ISO's virtual programming. That has provided a major link to the past, given the orchestra's idle condition from March 2020 until last month. He masterminded and hosted the Christel DeHaan Virtual Baroque Series, which placed a small contingent of ISO members onstage to present music from the 17th and 18th centuries, repertoire that most symphony orchestras have largely withdrawn from in recent decades. Yet the emphasis is also meant to build on the legacy of Raymond Leppard, the conductor laureate of the ISO who died in 2019.

Besides conducting the ensemble, Joyce presented onstage commentary, and in music of Handel and Pachelbel, played principal second violin. Patrons might be hearing more of that from Joyce in the years to come: "To be honest, that's kind of a secret hope of mine: to play and conduct from the violin." 

Of the Virtual Baroque Series, Joyce summed up its success this way: "We got a lot of views. One of the goals was to show off the talent to the community outside Indianapolis," he said, "and the feedback was overwhelming and encouraging." 

Virtual connection with a potentially global audience is an aim the ISO shares with many orchestras today: "Orchestras are shifting to that in addition to live concerts. It's building your brand online. We want to share the quality of our musicians with as many people around the world as we can, because we have something special to offer."

Joyce extends that to a hope that the audience for classical music will expand, a theme he has tried to build on through another of his innovations — the ISO podcast "Attention to Detail." 

"People are looking to get back to live experiences," the conductor said, "and I think we will see new people coming out because the pandemic has increased people's appetite for live experiences. We will have to keep thinking about ways to keep [the orchestra] relevant to people's daily lives."

Joyce insists that can be done "while keeping the integrity of the music. It's not about dumbing it down for people, but how do we brand it. Classical music is a thought-provoking medium, but one that anyone can engage with."

To get that across to a wider public is "the persistent challenge facing all orchestras."

This Yale graduate with a bachelor's degree in music and economics (his master's is in violin performance) probably has a brass-tacks sense of how to help the ISO cultivate that wider public.