Conductor's ISO debut strikes sparks, returning guest soloist nails concerto

 Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 follows in its authentic American fashion the precedent established by

Yue Bao was trained in Shanghai and at the Curtis Institute.

Beethoven's Third ("Eroica") of shifting the expressive weight of the symphony form to the finale.  And though that weight seems obviously centered early in the movement by the familiar "Fanfare for the Common Man," it is elaborated in a detailed, virtuosic kind of heaviness. Thus it relieves the superficial impression that this is all a little bit too much by the time of the brass-and-percussion peroration.

So it was scrupulously handled Friday night as the Chinese conductor Yue Bao made her Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra debut. The intricacy of motivic interplay, which she already had managed well in the tricky rhythmic zest of the second-movement scherzo, wasn't sped through or simply illuminated in brilliant flashes. She was attentive to the sharp-edged contours of the music from the first movement on, including its convincing episodes of calm, which carried well from flute and trombone into some lovely elaboration in the violins.

As for the acceptability of that pulse-quickening ending, I can't resist quoting my account of a previous fine ISO performance of the Copland Third under the baton of Michael Francis in October 2017: 

"When your ears are set to the wealth of skill and inspiration in the main body of the movement, you don't have to worry that the symphony's conclusion is simply an overstatement. The light emerges at the end, but it is as much a kind of simplification of the musical palette as it is some kind of metaphorical light."

Copland says somewhere in his writing about music that Beethoven's symphonies call up an image of a great man walking down the street, whereas Mahler's evoke a great actor playing a great man walking down the street. Copland in his own works comes closer to the Beethovenian ideal. In his mature music, he is never a poseur or a showboat, even when he approaches the grandiose, as in the Third Symphony. Bao seemed to model her interpretation on Copland's disinclination toward excessive display. She conducted a performance both energetic and clarifying, nuanced as well as explosive.

Bao presented as her calling card a short piece by one of the African-American composers of historic importance being programmed by orchestras nowadays. To be repeated with the rest of the program at 5:30 p.m. this afternoon, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's "Worship" is a sincere evocation of worship in the black church. It's a personal interpretation that doesn't make too much of stylistic resemblances. It rests on a kind of peekaboo tribute to "Old 100th," the classic hymn tune best known by its opening line, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

Vadim Gluzman burst with brio.

This weekend's other guest, reflecting mutual admiration for the guest conductor in his Words on Music remarks, is the Russian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman. Previously here in solo concertos by Bruch (2018) and Glazunov (2013),  Gluzman can be trusted to deliver a solid, polished performance. The tone is pristine and technically adept, and never trails a loose thread or a sketchy phrase.

This time his playing sounded extra brimful of confidence, resulting in a tendency to push the tempo in fast music. This was pervasive even though both musically and visually, he seemed focused on collaborative meaning with orchestra and conductor. Otherwise, more charm would have been welcome, a quality that became evident in the duo encore he offered with concertmaster Kevin Lin. 

Gluzman's playing in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor  was best coordinated with the orchestra when the solo violin places deft figuration above the strings' pizzicati in the first movement. That's not to say it was the only time that unity of solo and ensemble was evident, but it stood out. Interpretively, the range of expressiveness seemed small, though it was intensely applied. 

Surprisingly, it struck me as a Soviet-style performance of music by a composer who made many compromises with the regime that had pulled him back to the Russian homeland from abroad. Thus, it tapped into an authentic vein of Prokofiev's creativity, which repeatedly found ways to be original under severe constraints. But the capriciousness also characteristic of Prokofiev's muse was largely absent. 


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