|Putting teeth into it: Kevin John Edusei|
Though the chief work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series is the orchestral crown of Johannes Brahms' long residency in Vienna, his Symphony No. 4 in E minor owes its introduction to the world to the conductor Hans von Bulow's connection with Meiningen, Germany, and its famous orchestra. Advocacy of baton-wielders has long been central to new music's success.
Further underlining of the authenticity of the program's "Greetings from Germany" title is the presence of two superb German guest artists: Kevin John Edusei, conductor, and Maximilian Hornung, cello soloist. Both are making local debuts, and the return of either to the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage would be welcome. The one repeat of Friday's program will be this afternoon at 5:30.
Edusei favors an unconventional seating for the strings that is said to be widely preferred by German conductors. Left to right toward the front of the stage are first violins, cellos, violas, and second violins. The double basses are behind the cellos, roughly at a ten o'clock position from the podium.
Giving constant attention to the advantages of this arrangement would have meant not seeing the forest for a grove of trees. But I noted especially a lovely episode near the end of the Brahms second movement, when the lower strings support with a parallel line the violins' final iteration of the theme. There were other moments when I could tell that cellos and basses, facing forward, were projecting more clearly than normal. Bravo, too, for the seating's encouragement of presumably deeper listening among the players to adjust to environmental tweaking.
Stepping back to take in the larger picture: Edusei's manner with this beloved symphony is less angular than some, but still vigorously pronounced. He finds the flow in Brahms' often widely spaced melodies and spiky rhythms. The flow got a little cluttered with detail at one point in the first movement, but otherwise this performance was well-knit.
The concert's first half opened with the novelty of "Drei Walzer" (Three Waltzes) by Wolfgang Rihm, a contemporary German composer quite explicit about his admiration for Brahms. The slow middle waltz toys with inhibiting the momentum characteristic of the waltz in order to evoke Brahmsian tenderness. The first of the set, Sehnsuchtwalzer, carries in its title the German word for "yearning," a mood that sometimes reached heroic stature. German notions of the blend of heroism and yearning may have a troubling history, but everything was benignly laid out here.
The last waltz signals its meaning with a title meaning "urgent waltz," and the expressive terrain has a wealth of melodic charm and sudden intensity. The orchestra seemed to manage the breadth of expression quite well under the guidance of a conductor who clearly believes in his eminent countryman's lighter, quasi-improvisational mood.
Known to our grandparents chiefly as a composer of operettas, the Dublin-born Victor Herbert was a German composer who developed as cellist and composer rather quickly. On Friday, his Concerto No. 2 in E minor enjoyed its second 21st-century performance here, this time with Hornung as the star. Affable and energetic in manner, Hornung is a brawny cellist, nimble as all get out when he has to be, as in the finale. As concerto soloist he could make predecessors all the way from Mstislav Rostropovich to Zuill Bailey seem almost pallid and shy in comparison.
Well-matched with the accompaniment, Hornung made the unfamiliar concerto easy to love, especially since there are touches of Herbert's operetta genius in the buoyancy of the finale's main theme. For an encore, Hornung and the orchestra got even more bubbly, putting across the fey charm of Herbert's "Punchinello" with witty panache.
All told, these "Greetings from Germany" almost book your flight for you and underwrite your hotel stays.