SHIFT – To Change Place, Position, Direction or Surprise

United StatesUnited States SHIFT Festival – Lutosławski, Penderecki: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Erin Wall (soprano), Renée Tatum (mezzo-soprano), Alyssa Martin (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Liudas Mikalauskas (bass-baritone), Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra / Krzysztof Urbański (conductor), The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C., 13.4.2018. (RP)

 The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the 2018 SHIFT Festival © Tony Hitchcock
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the 2018 SHIFT Festival
© Tony Hitchcock

Lutosławski – Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Penderecki Credo

There is a cultural vibe in America’s heartland that is smashing many a preconceived notion of what is going on out there on the prairie. After the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the 2018 Shift Festival, you have to scratch your head and wonder if the city’s drinking water has been spiked with vodka. The 35-year-old, Polish-born Krzysztof Urbański, the orchestra’s music director since 2011, brought a program of Lutosławski and Penderecki to the nation’s capital that might be considered box office poison in some quarters. It turned out to be one of the festival’s hottest tickets, and the demographics of the audience made your head spin.

Launched in 2017, SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras is a co-venture between The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington Performing Arts. It celebrates the role that orchestras serve as cultural standard bearers in all 50 states and their impact on their communities. This year, the National Symphony Orchestra was joined by the Fort Worth, Albany and Indianapolis orchestras in concerts and residencies throughout the nation’s capital. They performed everywhere, in all sorts of venues, at all hours of the day or night and in every grouping of instruments imaginable.

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was written for the late Mstislav Rostropovich, who served as the NSO’s music director from 1977 to 1994. The great Russian cellist told the composer not to worry about the unplayable parts, as he would work them out. It is a demanding, at times almost incomprehensible, work. Rostropovich likened the orchestra’s repeated interruptions, almost obliteration at times, of the solo cello as being akin to the tyranny of a totalitarian state over the individual. Lutosławski rejected that notion.

The phenomenal cellist Alisa Weilerstein, a 2011 winner of a MacArthur Foundation award (the genius grants), was the soloist. She was fearless, her technique astounding. Her performance brought to mind a Vespa driver – graceful, intense, devil-may-care – darting through a chaotic traffic jam, where a wrong move could prove fatal. The orchestra was equally dauntless and technically perfect. At times, Urbański just sat back and let the music unfold. You don’t whistle a happy tune after such a work, but rather sit in awe at the musical force that was unleashed.

The onstage personnel mushroomed for Penderecki’s Credo – five soloists, scores of choristers and a massive orchestra – but it is a more accessible score. In the 1970s, Penderecki retreated from atonality to a more traditional style, exemplified by his Credo, commissioned by the Bach-Akademie Stuttgart and the Oregon Bach Festival, and first performed in 2001. It incorporates not only the traditional Latin text, but excerpts from the Psalms and hymns in German and Polish. The music is tonal and has been characterized as lush and Romantic, but it is nonetheless a massive work to wrap your head around.

The choirs sang with authority and impressive sound, which was especially beautiful in the work’s more melodious sections. The orchestra continued to impress, with woodwinds and brass shining as soloists and sections, as did the percussion, who were fantastic in the demanding music of the eighth movement. Penderecki’s vocal writing goes beyond demanding, but the fine quartet of soloists were up to the task. When they had to compete against a wall of sound, balance was at times an issue.

Erin Wall was undaunted by the extreme range of the soprano line, mobilizing her entire body to soar over the crushing waves of sound, but never at the expense of her lustrous tone. The other four soloists often had the luxury of thinner orchestrations. Bass-baritone Liudas Mikalauskas was particularly impressive with his lean, focused tone and forceful delivery. The two mezzo-sopranos, Renée Tatum and Alyssa Martin, both displayed fine voices, as did tenor Thomas Cooley.

An encore was played before a note of the Lutosławski was heard, Urbański rationalizing that nothing could possibly follow Penderecki’s Credo. Given his emotionally charged, rocket-fueled reading of the score, he had a point. Neither of the two programed works featured the orchestra’s strings, so Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa was their moment. Kilar was a leader in Poland’s avant-garde circles and, like Penderecki, turned to a simpler style, often employing folk tunes in his later years. Orawa, dating from 1986, is typical of this period where a simple idea is relentlessly pursued. The strings played the driving rhythms with pinpoint accuracy and stringent tone, only briefly getting to play sweet snippets of melody.

Before the concert, The Kennedy Center’s President, Deborah F. Rutter, gave a passionate and eloquent introduction to the festival and insights into the center’s unique place in America’s cultural landscape. It is not only a performing arts center, but also the nation’s living memorial to 35th President of the United States. He has no other.

Politics and the arts often make for contentious bedfellows in the United States, but André Carson, who represents Indiana’s Seventh Congressional District which includes Indianapolis, went high. I could imagine some politicians running for cover after a few measures of the Lutosławski, but Carson beamed with pride and boasted of this remarkable orchestra. The city’s mayor was also in the audience. I later heard that one of them had a child singing in the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. How wonderful!

I doubt that they are adulterating the drinking water (if only it were that easy), but there is something afoot in Indiana. I was mightily impressed by these politicians and the communities that they represent, let alone the musicians on stage. It might not be a shift, just the status quo in Indianapolis, but it was totally unexpected and all so very welcome.

Rick Perdian

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