Review: Indianapolis Symphony improvises for a Bolcom world premiere

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No single concert defines an orchestra. And that’s what I hope any naysayers (if there are any) will say if they privately object to the rampant goofball-ism that defined the first half of the May 31-June 1 Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program.

For the record, I have no idea how many such stick-in-the-muds there might be out there, but here’s hoping they are few, because, with this concert, the ISO showed not only a sense of humor, but a willingness to stretch the boundaries of its classical programming without compromising its musical integrity.

It started with the world premiere of William Bolcom’s “Games and Challenges: Something Wonderful Right Away.” But to credit the Pulitzer Prize winner for what was heard at the performance is like crediting Abner Doubleday for the most recent Indians game. Bolcom (who was in attendance) created the rules and the underlying music for a series of nine improv-based pieces, but the ISO and its trio-in-residence, Time for Three, made it specific.

In one piece, the woodwinds “conversed” with one another, with Time for Three and with the rest of the ISO picking up the themes. In another, the trio and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski tossed an imaginary ball and, with it, the control of the music. Yet another featured a Bolcom samba played by the orchestra with Time for Three improvising around it, leading into an audience participation chant of “I want my fun now!”

Yes, a few ISO players had a hint of those unfunny relatives at Thanksgiving trying to get a laugh from the kids, but nobody should expect first-class musicians to also display professional comedic chops. And it was all done with such good feelings—and solid musicianship—that, as with any good evening of improv, missteps and dead spots were easily forgivable.

What was most interesting was how the free-spiritedness of the first half infused the second, giving an in-the-moment urgency to the post-intermission performances of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” And an encore of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture seemed to come from an orchestra happy to give more to an audience that wasn’t yet willing to go home.

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