Saturday, June 3, 2017

ISO moves toward season's end with glowing accounts of Wagner, Schumann, Mahler

All the romantic baggage Mahler's First Symphony carries — much of it provided by the ambivalently program-minded composer himself — cannot obscure the fact that it is a masterly harbinger of modernism in its attention to gestural detail, timbre, and expressive weight fused with pure abstraction.

In this work, played Friday night by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the clash of pictorialism and elevated musical meaning is nowhere better illustrated than by the contrabass solo that opens the third movement. Ten years ago, when Ju-Fang Liu was just a few seasons into her tenure as the ISO's principal bass, her performance of that solo got national attention when the New Yorker's Alex Ross, in an account of visits he'd just made to hear several orchestras in the heartland, praised her by name for dispatching it "as elegantly and hauntingly as I've heard it."

Friday night she did it again, and I would add that the way she launched the movement, which uses the melody of "Frere Jacques" in the minor mode, helped set aside the composer's casual mention of a satirical painting titled "The Hunter's Funeral Procession," obsequies led by animals —  the work's most controversial episode when it was new nearly 130 years ago. That image has had a little too much influence on how concertgoers process what they're hearing. The direction Mahler provides at the start is simply "Feierlich und gemessen" — a phrase that can be variously translated, but forthrightly says that a ceremonious, measured, reserved manner is what's wanted. Liu provided that once again, with no inflection toward anything ironic or cutesy. It was well-projected from the back of the stage, with true intonation, soft yet self-assured. It set the movement's agenda with magnificent restraint.

Mahler's Symphony in D major, for all its collective force and evocations of wide natural vistas, is a treasury of significant details. One of my favorites is the way the violas herald the final climax in the last movement. After Mahler provides us with the glimpse of the heights in view after the hellish launch of the finale, there's a lingering passage of recall in which the orchestra brings back a few lovely melodies. The mood of recollection is dispelled by a brief outburst from the violas, which  is elaborated and stirs the orchestra to forward-looking action. It's as if the section is goading its colleagues: "It's all very nice here on the foothills of Parnassus. Now, let's climb!" The figure has to be played with extraordinary urgency to function as the start of the work's tremendous peroration, which is capped by a horn chorale, bells lifted. Urbanski got the requisite "bite" from the violas, led by Mike Chen.

Guest artist Inon Barnatan
The conductor drew from the ISO similar luster in many other places. The onset of the song theme in the first movement, "Ging heut' Morgen uebers Feld," followed gently upon the introductory material. Such welds were always firm and naturally produced in illuminating a composer often caricatured as subject to mood swings. I don't think that quality dominates Mahler's music, though it seems to have been a nagging feature in his life, dogged as he was by well-founded premonitions of death. In this performance, dynamic control was responsive to Mahler's extreme demands, particularly toward the soft side. In only a few places did sustained tones not hold evenly. The overall achievement was astonishingly consistent, from full-bodied vigor to the most delicate tracery.

A final note with an odd Indiana connection: The mastery already evident in Mahler's first symphony is more than a matter of his absorption of musical values through his work as a conductor. And it turns out that four early Mahler symphonies, now forever lost, seem to have preceded the masterpiece the ISO is revisiting this weekend. They were played in piano reduction by Dutch conductor and Mahler advocate Willem Mengelberg and a friend sometime after the composer's death, following their discovery in the archives of the Carl Maria von Weber family. Where? In Dresden, Germany, a charming city destroyed by Allied firebombing in early 1945. That was the same strategically gratuitous cataclysm that was eventually to shape the literary career of a Hoosier prisoner of war by the name of Kurt Vonnegut and lead to his greatest work, "Slaughterhouse Five." Art, both in the disappearance of some products and the emergence of others, is ineluctably affected by awful events.

The weekend's program (to be repeated in Hilbert Circle Theatre at 5:30 this afternoon) opens with Wagner's "Forest Murmurs," an orchestral extrapolation from "Siegfried," the third opera in the "Nibelung's Ring" tetralogy. Wagner's orchestration and harmonic adventurousness were among his influences on Mahler. The combination of inspiration from nature and a flair for the dramatic reappropriation of themes and motives in different contexts is a quite evident force in this music, which got Friday's program off to a tidy, well-propelled start.

The program's guest soloist is an Israeli pianist engaged as a replacement for the indisposed Bertrand Chamayou. Inon Barnatan, who came through Indiana last fall to play a recital at Purdue University, is making his ISO debut with Robert Schumann's Concerto in A minor.

This is one of the few warhorses I never tire of hearing — though I suppose if it were imposed on me daily for a couple of months it might begin to pall. On Friday, Barnatan gave a forceful, precise account (apart from a few passing slips in the finale) of this evergreen work. His rhythmic snap and accuracy seem to have made him easy to accompany; there was certainly no lack of rapport with the orchestra,  and his tone was well-defined and full of variety. The interplay with assistant principal oboist Roger Roe, so pervasive a feature of the first movement, was delightful. The accompaniment shone with a kind of glinting pointillism in the second movement. The finale, in which the way transitional material and a certain amount of "throat-clearing" becomes as fascinating as the main argument, was exquisitely balanced throughout.