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ISO returns with contract - and naked podium 

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click to enlarge Soprano Twyla Robinson
  • Soprano Twyla Robinson

A "first" can refer to a lot of things, the most obvious one here being the resumption of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's concert schedule in midseason--as it were--because a contract was settled. But Friday evening's real first came when earlier that day ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański decided to allow his players to take on Ravel's Boléro without a conductor--after it was successfully done in Thursday's ISO Happy Hour. (He walked on stage, took a bow, then walked down the stage steps and took a front-row seat.) A pretty good choice if one were looking for novelty: constant tempo, same rhythmic figuration throughout, an incessant repetition of a main theme and its variant--each time starting with a different solo instrument, and later a chorus of instruments.

And it worked quite well, till the entrance of the solo trombone. Its player perhaps missing a conductor cue he/she couldn't get, the instrument burbled its way onward trying to find the theme but never quite clamping onto it. It was noticeable by all (the only reason I bring this up) and was surely embarrassing to the player, who simply had one of those bad moments usually more endemic to French horn players. Otherwise the ISO horn and brass sections are exemplary. This aside, Boléro was played together and stayed together from start to finish.

Urbański began this all-French program with Oliver Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi--a song cycle for soprano and orchestra (1937, originally for piano) dedicated to his beloved wife, whom he affectionately called Mi but to everyone else was Claire. The cycle is charming and reflective of the ardor Messiaen must have felt writing it.

The nine songs were sung by soprano Twyla Robinson whose vocalism varied over the songs' plethora of emotions. Though the strings dominated the high registers of the orchestral compass -- typical for Messiaen, Robinson often delved into the mezzo range, where she could not be heard above the strings back of her. Only in her few moments of soaringly high soprano did her projection dominate.

Urbański had planned to end his program with Boléro before deciding that day to not conduct it. So instead he inserted it between Poèmes pour Mi and the evening's masterpiece, Debussy's La Mer (1905). One of the great orchestral works of the ages, Debussy's evocation of the sea never ceases to amaze with its breathtaking inevitability from one bar to the next--one phrase to the next, its musical undulations cast with an absolute mastery of orchestration.

Furthermore, La Mer proved itself yet another Urbański triumph, as he wove his players through the successive inevitabilities of "From Dawn to Noon on the Sea," "The Play of the Waves" and "Dialogue of Wind and the Sea." It was a perfect balance of strings, winds, brass, percussion and harps -- of color and dynamics -- all appearing in their place as though it could not have been otherwise. Our young, just-turned-30, music director did well to save this one till last. Oct. 19-20; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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