I had come for the Beethoven. Sure, I knew the program also included a Brahms overture and a Schumann concerto, but I had expected them to be preludes to the main event: Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
I had come for Urbanski. Yes, he would be standing before a stage filled with talented musicians, but my purpose was to see this young, acclaimed conductor for the first time.
I had come for the cello concerto, ready to bask in the kind of warm, vibrant tones that, over the years, had nurtured in me a love of the romantic cello.
That's why I had come to the March 22 Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert: Beethoven, Urbanski and the romantic cello. What I got, most memorably, was Vasks, Gabetta and a quirky, contemporary cello masterpiece.
Don't get me wrong. None of what I had come for disappointed me. Beethoven, Urbanski and the romantic cello lived up to expectations. But it was music I could not have anticipated that delighted me most. And that's what made this the kind of singular evening I had hoped for when I made these plans three months ago.
Asked by Sky Blue Window to survey the spring arts season in search of the one event I would choose if I could indeed choose only one event, I had pondered plays and dance performances, concerts and art exhibitions. I imagined myself as an out-of-towner, judging Indianapolis' cultural worth by one event, or as an arts newcomer trying to get a sample of something truly special. Then I matched those criteria against my own preferences and curiosities, and made my choice.
"I'm going with ISO, for a few reasons," I wrote. "Obviously, it's a rare experience to hear one of the world's most memorable pieces of music performed live by one of the world's top symphony orchestras. Also, I've not yet seen Krzysztof Urbanski conduct, and this piece should give him a chance to really strut his stuff. The fact that there's a cello piece on the program ... simply adds to the appeal."
I might have mentioned, too, that I simply love walking into the Hilbert Circle Theatre, love the time spent in my seat absorbing the architecture before the music begins, love the reverent quiet that falls over the audience as the orchestra finishes tuning and waits for the maestro to enter, and love the time-worn rituals (deference to the concert master, reverence for the conductor, etc.) that launch an evening at the symphony.
With these rituals complete, the concert began with the two full-orchestra chords - sudden and solid - that Johannes Brahms used to announce the beginning of his "Tragic Overture." I soon realized that, for Brahms, "tragic" did not mean sad and moody. The tragedy here lies in tension and chaos, in the contrasts between action and calm. Pain comes from being lost and adrift in emotions that draw you in all directions and leave you in a quiet, still pain. The landscape of tragedy as rendered by the musicians on this night is not flat and plain; it's varied, surprising, relentless and overwhelming.
Admittedly, even with this aural drama taking place, my mind occasionally drifted away from the music to the visual spectacle. I have always been fascinated by the physical movement of orchestras - by the mix of individual emotion embodied by each musician and the collective swirl of the orchestra as a whole. The scene is in turns as chaotic as battle and as serene as the wind strumming the tips of a wheat field.
At the center of this visual display stood Krzysztof Urbanski, the young composer who last year took over as the ISO's music director. Having heard his conducting described as "athletic," I expected a muscular, almost macho style of conducting. Certainly, if that were his style, the concert I was here to see would reveal it. But no: The athleticism I saw - and I agree that "athletic" is a fitting adjective - was more lyrical and lovely. It was athletic in the way that a great dancer is athletic. It never bullied the orchestra the way some powerhouse conductors do. No: Rather than march ahead of the musicians, he walked alongside them, nurturing the sounds that grew collectively from the wood, brass, metal, fiberglass, steel, plastic, horsehair and humanity placed in front of him. He sometimes seemed to pluck sound from the air; other times he drew it out slowly and delicately. And, yes, occasionally he demanded it, conjured it up and hurled it into space.
Distracted by what I was watching rather than hearing, I soon realized the Brahms piece was ending. The audience warmly showed its appreciation, Urbanski left the stage and the musicians and ISO crew reconfigured the stage for the cello concerto, making room for the soloist next to the conductor's platform. Soon, Urbanski returned, graciously acknowledging adoring applause, followed closely by Sol Gabetta, a slight young woman carrying a cello. She acknowledged the audience, took her seat, and nodded politely at Urbanski. Quiet returned to the auditorium. Urbanski exchanged one more glance with Gabetta, and then waved the orchestra into action. A few measures later, Gabetta put bow to string and the warm, sonorous cello tones I love so much emerged into the air.
Beauty. That's what happened after that. I can't fully describe what Gabetta played because rather than record it in my mind, I simply experienced it. I remember her percussive managing of her cello - at times, I could heard the thwack of her fingers pressing strings as loudly as the sound being drawn out by her bow - and the almost conspiratorial glances she gave to the conductor and musicians around her. I remember a swirl of action as her left hand clambered up and down the cello's neck and her right hand danced the bow over the strings. I remember her swaying, submissive to rhythm, when she was not playing. I remember being moved.
I was not alone in my appreciation. When the piece was finished, the audience leapt to its feet. When the young cellist bowed and walked offstage with Urbanski, the audience refused to give her up. She was called back for another bow. And another.And for an encore.
And that is when the evening moved from wonderful to amazing. With a massive orchestra sitting quietly and politely behind her, this tiny woman, lovely in a dress that exposed muscular shoulders, sat down, took a deep breath, and launched into a piece so unlike what she had just performed that the audience at first seemed a little stunned.
I should not have liked this music. Written by contemporary composer PeterisVasks as the second movement of a composition titled "The Book," this piece known as "Dolcissimo" shares characteristics with pieces I have hated in the past. It embraces dissonance, and demands of the cello sounds that at times seem more like sound effects than music. Too often, composers seem to employ these techniques as a way to shock or offend the listener. Vasks' creation, on the other hand, made these histrionics play out as true emotion, at the same time engaging and troubling, calming and provocative.
Playing this piece in the broad space of the Hilbert Circle Theatre, with dozens of black-clad musicians behind her and no conductor beside her, Gabetta seemed small and vulnerable. She surrendered to the space and the music. Her cello's mix of edgy notes, swirling runs and unsettled chording rose starkly alone in the half-darkness.
And then, part way into the composition, another sound emerged. At first I couldn't identify it. Where was it coming from? How was the cello making such a new tone? Then I realized it was Gabetta herself, singing in heartfelt harmony to the notes she was playing on the cello. I was dumbstruck. The word that came to mind was "courageous." Already having risked the audience's approval by taunting at times difficult and unsettling sounds from her cello, she then rendered herself even more vulnerable by exposing her very self to review.
I will admit that the audience's reaction was less enthusiastic than for the Shumann concerto. Gabetta's performance was applauded, warmly, but not everyone in the theater jumped to their feet when she finished the Vasks work. For me, though, this was the moment I had come looking for. As unexpected as it was, as unlikely as it could be, this was why I had ventured into the concert hall on this night. It was exhilarating. Memorable.Moving.
Then, intermission.Then Beethoven. Yes, the 5th Symphony was everything I had hoped. Urbanski seemed to have put fresh life into a piece that has been played untold numbers of time. Yes, it was more than the four notes we've all come to know (perhaps the most recognizable opening in all of symphonic music). And, no, I don't suggest that, in the great parade of time and music, PeterisVasks' seven-and-a-half-minute cello solo will cast a shadow over Beethoven's signature composition.
But I do admit that on this night, at this event, the Vasks piece had me so numbed that I was distracted for the rest of the night. I heard and appreciated the Beethoven - loved the way the orchestra expressed the moody transformations and varied emotions it offers - but I lived and relived the Vasks piece throughout the ISO's performance of the 5th Symphony and long after. It provoked and haunted me for days. I looked up performances on YouTube, and listened to recordings on Spotify. It was an unlikely affectation for me, but I could not get away from it.
What do you look for when we go to the concert hall, theatre or gallery? For me, the answer is that I go to be lifted out of the reality of the world and into a moment that transcends it, all so I can return to the world with a new perspective and fresh heart. I found that in Beethoven, Urbanski and the romantic cello. But I also found it in Vasks, Gabetta and a quirky, contemporary cello masterpiece that left me stunned, amazed and renewed. It was everything I had expected and much that I couldn't imagine. And if it had indeed been my one chance at a cultural experience, it would have prompted me to find another. And another.And another.