Review: Urbański ends ISO season mightily 

click to enlarge Hoosier violinist Joshua Bell
  • Hoosier violinist Joshua Bell

What a way to end a season: a sold-out Circle Theatre both Friday and Saturday, violinist Joshua Bell intoning an all-time concerto repertoire favorite, followed by an all-time symphonic repertoire favorite, all conducted by he who is by now the symphony-goers' favorite, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Krzysztof Urbański. It was the perfect program to be introduced with a short avant-garde piece by one of Urbański's fellow countrymen, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (PendereETSkee, b. 1933).

Penderecki's Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima (1960) was originally titled 8'37"-- indicating the time it takes (or should take) to play it. It became famous after the composer decided to attach the foregoing title to it (he states that he never composes with a program in mind). Written at the height of mid-20th century's fling in going beyond atonality, beyond the discipline of serialism, it calls for 52 strings from violins to double basses, making all the sounds of which such instruments are capable.

Tone clusters -- three or more notes (usually many more) at no greater than a whole step apart sounded together--form the chief element of this style. Much of the cluster writing of Threnody is in half steps, but quarter steps, wherein the pitch differences are hardly discernable, are also employed. "Sonorism" is the name given to this style, introduced by Threnody.

The piece begins with a screeching tone cluster -- the violins all sounding at once in many adjacent pitches -- lasting many seconds. All pitches and sounds are explored at varying lengths among the various sized strings from the highest to the lowest. Since the earliest notated Gregorian Chants of the first millennium, this is the first style which lacks melody, harmony and rhythm, but offers sustained timbres and a wide dynamic range. If the effect is frightening to some, it will have met the meaning of its finally assigned title. Tone cluster writing faded out by the late 20th century -- perhaps because it failed to find a general audience, as serialism had failed before it. Still, our full house gave its 8 minutes and 37 seconds (I didn't time it) a hearty applause.

Perhaps they were anticipating the entrance of Joshua Bell (the reason for the sold-out houses) for the Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1879). Some may be aware that Brahms patterned his concerto's first movement after that of Beethoven's only violin concerto, Op. 61-- also in D -- both lasting nearly 25 minutes. In this one case, Brahms improved on his model by enriching his lyrico/dramatic curves over the excessively straight-laced and surface-y ones of his predecessor. As a critic of The Nation magazine once put it, "Op. 61 would be less respected if the name Beethoven weren't attached to it."

Bell, Urbański and his players formed a remarkably cohesive group in one of the better Op. 77s I've heard. From the long orchestral intro to Bell's rapid upscale entrance, we heard shape, precision and excellent dynamic nuance. Bell's inclusion of subtle nuances within his virtuosic and expressive reading made his partnership with the orchestra well matched throughout the three movements. Plus newly appointed ISO principal oboist Jennifer Christen displayed her excellent talent in the opening theme of Brahms' slow movement.

Though Bell continues to play with a thin tone, it often possessed added richness in this collaboration. (Bell and Japanese violinist Midori's tones are a near perfect match.) In some of his fastest passage work, Bell occasionally glides over any articulation, but without compromising his interpretive prowess. A thundering applause greeted their account.

Following the break came another mighty opus, Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 ("Eroica"), the first work to define the symphony as the 19th century came to perceive it.

For this performance (and for the two preceding works as well), Urbański had the first violins in their usual place downstage to the left of the podium. But the second violins were downstage to its right, the violas were back and slightly to the left of the second violins, the cellos were back and slightly to the right of the first violins and the eight double basses were on risers upstage at the rear--with the winds, brass and timpani between the basses and the other strings (in the Brahms and Beethoven). This orchestral layout is common in Europe and is no doubt experimental for Urbański here.

While our music director achieved a mighty conception of the "Eroica"-- revisionist in terms of its fast tempi -- its execution lacked the ISO's best standards: Occasional raggedness crept into the rapid, triple-meter string figurations in the third movement (Scherzo). However, the triple-horn playing in the "trio" section was beautifully executed. Perhaps our conductor needs further work with his players in this new layout if he intends to keep it. Next season he'll have ten concerts out of the 20, in which to experiment. May 31-June 2; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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Tom Aldridge

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