Saturday, October 2, 2021

On our home turf: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra re-establishes itself as Classical Series opens

If we remain conflicted about immigration, our nation can at least greet people who are already American citizens with a hearty "Welcome to the United States of America."

At any rate, that's the inarguable welcome the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra extends to its audience as it opens its 2021-22 Classical Series this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

ISO guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Maybe it takes thematic programming to make such a declaration sound less jingoistic than it might otherwise. The season rolls out from here with a strong international emphasis; concerts in the series  focus on a range of nations elsewhere. In two weeks, Hungary occupies the spotlight, followed by England in November.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, a Juilliard-trained native of Peru and conductor laureate of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, is the guest conductor of a program energetically introduced in a sparsely attended concert Friday night. Here's hoping a followup at 5:30 this afternoon draws more people. The music offers a rare chance to explore mostly 20th-century American repertoire in a concentrated form.

The featured soloist is another musician to whom America has extended a warm welcome: Augustin

IVCI gold medalist Hadelich returns as ISO guest artist in Barber concerto.

born in Italy to German parents and also a Juilliard alumnus before the top prize in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis helped propel him to eminence in 2006. He's been well-received in Indianapolis ever since he advanced toward the IVCI gold medal 15 years ago. Having creatively addressed the restraints of the pandemic with online master classes and recitals, Hadelich is well-positioned to resume his celebrated career as the plague recedes.

Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, op. 14, the most popular of American violin concertos, was the program's centerpiece. Hadelich weighted its predominant lyricism effectively in the first movement, offering a nice anticipation  of the tension that takes over  at the general climax. This was an earnest interpretation, in which the beauties of the second movement, so variously expressed by both soloist and orchestra, coalesced in a gloriously legato full statement of the melody. 

In this work Barber made the case for personal advocacy of romanticism in a period when a modernist aesthetic was gaining ground. The finale is famous for its sudden outburst of taxing perpetual-motion drive, dispelling the ruminative mood. Despite some quivering in precision between orchestra and soloist, the Presto movement made its exciting points, no more so than when the violin's prevailing eighth-note triplets intensify into sixteenth notes, a pattern that gives the illusion of scarcely believable acceleration toward the final chord. The resulting ovation gave Hadelich the opportunity to present a deep-dyed encore that adhered to the concert's theme: "Louisiana Blues Strut" by the black American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).

Works of two other black composers bookend the program. Friday's concert introduced us to the 25-year-old Kevin Day, whose "Lightspeed" resembles the Barber finale insofar as its excitement is keyed to fiery temperament and devil-take-the-hindmost dash.  I found its brief turn to an episode of relaxation unconvincing, because Day's purpose was clearly to give the ensemble as much free rein as possible: that's what its three-minute length was all about.

Ending the program was music by a composer well-known to anyone with a historical view of jazz piano.  James P. Johnson, champion of the "stride" style of a hundred years ago, was represented by an overemphatic piece for orchestra titled "Drums." It lives up to the impact of its title, as principal timpanist Jack Brennan demonstrated remarkably well Friday night. From ominous soft thumping to thunderclaps, the timpani portray something elemental in black American music that the orchestra elaborates through blues-saturated phrasing. At the climax, there's a tremendous full-orchestra unison statement that is almost too much for its context, but on the other hand seems consonant with what Johnson wanted to convey.

Before a fruitful visit to Aaron Copland terrain after intermission, Harth-Bedoya and the ISO inserted a fey sample of Jennifer Higdon's "Dance Card" series, this one convincingly called "Jumble Dance." A little more sharp angularity was called for in Friday's performance, but the scoring is so well-articulated that the contrapuntal elbow-jabbing still came through well. 

Copland, who advocated so explicitly for getting the music of him and his contemporaries into American ears, is  a major presence in "Welcome to the United States of America." He came into his own  as a young man and middle-aged maestro, tempering his 1920s brashness somewhat while never abandoning a responsibility to speak to his homeland in a personal voice that summed up his homeland's energy and freshness.

It was good to hear "Quiet City" again on an ISO program, especially since my memories of what Conrad Jones' predecessor in 2014 did with it are not pleasant. Paired as soloist with Roger Roe's excellence on the English horn, Jones delivered a clear, smoothly enunciated performance; he allowed what Copland wrote to carry the poignancy of the dramatic situation that inspired the piece. Only one soft entrance, in response to an English-horn phrase, was slightly rough. Roe, as expected, proved a perfect partner for Jones, and Harth-Bedoya managed the ISO string ensemble deftly. 

Copland's Symphony No. 2 (Short Symphony), with its difficult early history, is easy to like in the context of this generally jumpy program. The work demonstrates how readily Copland could project his characteristic calm through his music. When something spiky and aggressive occurs to him, it appears before the audience in plain clothes, without emotional baggage.  

The pointillistic first movement, dealt with well Friday in its tightrope accenting, sounded as if it never should have given orchestras in the 1930s so much trouble. In the second movement, the way the harmonies move  smoothly confirms the value of Copland's lessons in harmony with Nadia Boulanger when the budding composer was barely out of his teens. The spaciousness of Copland's writing in "Appalachian Spring" and other scores of his "Americanist" period is adumbrated here. The ISO showed a firm grasp of the brief solos and evanescent combinations of instrumental voices in the finale, which suggests further foreshadowing — of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which will be heard at the next national stop, Hungary, two weeks from now. 

For the time being, though, it's all about American glory, even at its most bumptious.

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