Review: ISO's Urbański returns - and records 

***1/2
click to enlarge Cellist Zuill Bailey
  • Cellist Zuill Bailey

Two weeks ago the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's reading of Holst's The Planets was a revelation, an epiphany for the Circle Theatre's sold out house (and for yours truly), a five-star concert if ever there was one. The reason was our new music director Krzysztof Urbański's "stellar vision" of the popular planetary suite and his ability to coerce his performers into exacting from it precisely what he saw. The rest of that program seemingly held to those high standards.

Not quite so this weekend, though Urbański's conducting had less to do with failing to convey those recalled emotions than his programming choices. (Though amply filled, the Circle this time was hardly a sellout.) Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 and the first three tone poems from Bedřich Smetana's six-poem cycle Má Vlast (My Fatherland) were preceded by a post-Modernist composition from Polish composer Wojciech Kilar: Krzesany (1974).

By far the most pleasing element of the evening was the return of cellist Zuill Bailey, after recording a live performance here in Feb. 2010 of Dvořak's Cello Concerto and two of his orchestral works. Well guess what? Bailey is once more having this program recorded for commercial release, with a plethora of stage-front mikes again trying -- but failing -- to conceal the performers back of them.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the Elgar is less ambitious a work than the Dvořak. Its four movements mostly join together while its themes offer nothing arresting or memorable apart from conveying the post-Romantic nostalgia characteristic of this Brit's style. Bailey, however, made it almost come alive solely with his beautiful cello work, this Virginia native's left hand wandering up and down the long fingerboard while making among the most dulcet timbres I've ever heard from that instrument. Of those cellists appearing here in the last two decades, only Canada's Shauna Rolston -- and of course Yo Yo Ma -- have achieved Bailey's playing level.

From Smetana's six "Fatherland" tone poems, the public only recognizes the second one, The Moldau, in fact the Czech composer's most famous composition. As only three were performed, we heard: I.Vysehrad (The High Castle), II. Vltava (The Moldau) and III.Sárka.The High Castle is dominated by a memorably heroic motive, one made more unforgettable by its single restatement at the end of Moldau.

All three works are strongly indebted to Wagner, especially Moldau -- those string undulations merely being transferred -- via Wagner's Ring-opera cycle -- from the river Rhine to the river Moldau. Sárka portrays a man-hating woman, which is of no help at all in either anticipating or hearing the music. Urbański held his players together in well-polished, seamless and otherwise unremarkable performances.

In fact, our music director seemed to thrust more energy into Kilar's Krzesany than anything following. What to say about a style with which I find no resonance whatever -- but Urbański clearly does? First of all, Kilar, now 80, is best known for his film scores, e.g. Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Truman Show, The Pianist, etc. Most of Kilar's orchestral works had never been recorded before 2000. Now, late in his life, they have earned something of a following.

The post-Modernist school occupies that unhappy interval between late-Modernism and the "contemporary" period of the last three decades, including minimalism and neo-tonality. Krzesany employs that style in depicting a Polish highlander dance sequence.

What I heard was: the strings playing an uninterrupted plethora of off-pitches depicting for me countless lost souls wailing away in timeless agony; a timpani-brass punctuation going nowhere; soft, dance like tunes with noise in back of them; a sequence rather like a locomotive chugging a long train (compare Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 from 1923). The sounds alone made this the most exciting-but-unrewarding 15 minutes of the evening. March 29-31; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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