ISO's 'Incantations' evokes Arctic shamans

03.19.11
Robert Spano, Colin Currie
Indianapolis Star

By Jay Harvey

There's a bit of famous repartee in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" that starts when the Welsh windbag Glendower declares "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." That's the boast the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara undertakes to stand behind in "Incantations," a 2009 concerto for solo percussion and orchestra that's the centerpiece of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program.

And on Friday night, with the wizardry of Colin Currie in the solo role and evocative backing by the ISO under the baton of Robert Spano, Rautavaara seemed to go a long way toward effecting the power of the Arctic shamans he cites in his program note for the piece.

As the 22-minute concerto got under way, however, the portentous blandness with which the orchestra introduces the soloist called to mind Hotspur's retort to Glendower: "Why, so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?"

The leaden obviousness of those initial measures soon yielded to the soloist's spellbinding entrance -- a rush of marimba figuration, its intensity echoed by similar patterns on tuned drums and cymbals. Currie shifted deftly behind the array, sometimes producing four mallets where two had been a moment before, hammering out dissonant staccato chords, asserting shamanic authority.

Rautavaara's orchestration becomes more subtle behind the soloist than it was when announcing him. Particularly in the haunting second movement, with the solo part focused on the vibraphone, the accompaniment responds to both the meditative and the stirring aspects of the solo. It's nature coming alive and producing sympathetic vibrations to the shaman's call.

The finale combines dance and trance, climaxing in an explosive cadenza, in which Currie fleetly brought into play the whole kit and caboodle, precisely timed and ordered as rituals tend to be. The answer to Hotspur's question in this case is: Yes, the spirits do come when Rautavaara, through an adroit interpreter like Currie, calls for them.

Spano opened the concert with the most famous piece by Rautavaara's countryman Jean Sibelius: "Finlandia" was given a performance that cradled the famous tune in an integral way within the stormy and stirring music that surrounds it.

After intermission, in performances of two tone poems by Ottorino Respighi, the conductor brought a knack for linking disparate elements even more impressively to the fore. In scores so focused on displays of color as "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome," Spano paid attention to their interactions, not just their pictorial riches.

Everything proceeded with lively deliberation. "The Pines of the Appian Way," the concert's spectacular finale depicting Rome's triumphant legions on the march, unfolded just as patiently as the daybreak in the first of the "Fountains."

Before the ISO took the stage, the best thing about Music for All's Honor Orchestra of America's brief concert was a guest appearance by the seductive fiddler Mark O'Connor, playing with the locally based "all-star" youth orchestra the third movement of his "Fiddle Concerto." He has provided a nice vehicle for himself in this episodic music, allowing him to explore the reflective and exuberant sides of a genre he has done so much to make art out of.