Saturday, October 16, 2021

The ISO welcomes a Hungarian violinist to lend soloistic pizazz to its 'Greetings from Hungary'

The second installment of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's thematic programming in its 2021-22 Classical Series takes audiences to Hungary this weekend.

Kristof Barati played two pieces inspired by Gypsy music associated with Hungary.

Of course the travel theme has to be interpreted liberally to take in music merely  inspired by that of the destination, as is the case with two violin showpieces featured on the program. And composers have always moved around from time to time: you have many instances like the masterwork that concludes "Greetings from Hungary." It's music which comes as much from wartime New York City, especially given how touching a story there is behind the creation of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The Hungarian master, one of a broad spectrum of European artists and intellectuals displaced by World War II and fleeing to the United States, was slowly dying and in need of artistic and personal validation in the country to which he had fled. So, as the program note explains, the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation came as a life preserver, and made possible Bartok's last completed work.

Guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, whose principal professional work is as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, smartly led the demanding but gratefully written showpiece for orchestra to conclude Friday night's ISO concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre. (It will also end this afternoon's repeat presentation of the program.)

Lots of care was taken with the melodies that keep poking through the busy texture in the first movement.

Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto

Sometimes that busy texture sounded a little blurry; the lower strings could have been clearer at the point where the trumpets insert their characteristic melody. The movement ended powerfully, however, and with a unanimous force that showed up when called for later. 

What followed, a movement Bartok called a "game of pairs," was tightly delivered in its rhythms, with instrumental colors as bright and distinct as those in a Piet Mondrian painting. It could have displayed a more playful attitude, however, in line with the movement description; fortunately the bassoons caught the cheeky humor best.

The contrast with the  third-movement "Elegy" was nonetheless significant, because Prieto there drew forth a rather searing account, sharp-angled and forceful.  In fact, the performance recalled for me some of those bleakly sonorous Shostakovich slow movements; the association is not off-base, perhaps, as Bartok seems to have had the Russian composer in mind with the brief teasing passage in the "interrupted intermezzo" (the fourth movement). This has often been pointed  out as a parody of a phrase endlessly repeated in the "Leningrad" Symphony, where the Russian composer may have been doing some sardonic recollection of his own ("I'm Off to Chez Maxim's" from Lehar's "Merry Widow.")

The cleverly designed "Intermezzo" proceeded in a colorful if poker-faced manner until a raucous bass-trombone glissando effectively summed up the concise movement. The finale was notable for much excellent playing, with the fugal passage for strings being especially well-pronounced. Still, there were moments in the onrushing passagework where more violin precision would have been welcome. But the sweep and vigor of the fifth movement's well-distributed climaxes were irresistible, a reinforcement of my love for this work since my teenage years. 

The foreground for the pleasure I took in it Friday was a couple of radiant performances by guest violin soloist Kristof Barati. Starting with Ravel's "Tzigane," the mid-career Hungarian violinist gave evidence of a commanding presence. His big tone comprised a variety of expressive touches; his left-hand pizzicati were crystalline, for example. Once the orchestra joined him after the piece's unique unaccompanied introduction, it was clear he had a symphonic conception of the work that worked really well with his orchestral partners. At a nod from Barati, Prieto invited ISO harpist Diane Evans to take a well-deserved solo bow.

In Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," Barati's figuration, delicately balanced against the melodic argument of the piece, was exquisitely controlled. The tempo flexibility of orchestra and soloist was without flaw in suggesting the spontaneity and passion associated with Gypsy life.

The program opened with Miklos Rosza's panoramic showpiece, "Three Hungarian Sketches." Concertmaster Kevin Lin had some crisply and evocatively turned solos. There was lots of faithfully recalled local color over the course of the three movements. Orchestral display, though vivid, was notably less marked by genius than the Bartok piece that came after intermission. 

Rosza may have made his main bid for immortality in Hollywood, but in his concert music he had a film composer's magpie gift for collecting wisely and pertinently. And his devotion to his home turf must have  never left him. In addition to its wealth of detail, this piece had the kind of full-orchestra warmth,  especially in the second sketch, "Pastorale," that would have been right at home in a climactic 1940s movie scene. Though not a great piece of music, "Three Hungarian Sketches" made for a perfect opener to this broad-based musical travelogue.

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