Yen For Horror Leads Composer To Tall Dark Tales

French composer Guillaume Connesson’s macabre tone poem ‘Les cités de Lovecraft’ received its Indianapolis Symphony premiere Jan. 11, the centerpiece of its Paris Festival. (Photo by Marie-Sophie Leturcq)

INDIANAPOLIS – It was a concert unified by more than music with connections to the program’s namesake city, when music director Krzysztof Urbański led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a Paris Festival at the Hilbert Circle Theatre on Jan. 11.

The event featured the orchestra’s first performance of Les cités de Lovecraft by Guillaume Connesson (born in 1970 in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of – you guessed it – Paris). Altogether, Urbański offered an exquisite program marked by contrast and variety in moods, orchestration, and extra-musical associations, all of which were integrated by the conductor’s steadiness of interpretation of four wildly diverse compositions.

The program was rounded out by Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 (Paris), Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with an 11-piece troupe from Indianapolis’ Dance Kaleidoscope, choreographed by artistic director David Hochoy.

Lovecraft’s specialty was bone-chilling fiction.

Co-commissioned by the Orchestre National de Lyon and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, which presented the world premiere in October 2017 under Marc Albrecht, Les cités de Lovecraft is a 23-minute plunge into horror  fiction author H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination, where the macabre, the grotesque, and the occult are the norm. Urbański led its Italian premiere last summer with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; the U.S. premiere by the Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra, led by Stéphane Denève, took place in Santa Barbara, Cal., shortly thereafter.

Connesson has been fascinated by Lovecraft’s science fiction and horror stories since he was a teenager. The composer’s juvenilia from the late 1980s had already included an orchestral piece about the American writer. According to Connesson, Lovecraft (b. 1890) would write his own dreams, which became the basis for some of the stories. Inspired by three of the “cities” from the writer’s Dream Cycle collection some 30 years after his initial attempt at a musical depiction of Lovecraft’s supernatural imagery, Connesson returned to the project of a Lovecraft tone poem. [Connesson talked about the work’s development at the time of the Netherlands premiere, below.]

Les cités launches on a vertiginous upward scurry on high woodwinds immediately after a lash of the whip; Connesson makes it evident from the beginning that the three-movement piece will be no placid joyride. But the irresistible thing about Connesson’s style is his balancing of turbulent blows by full orchestra (with triple woodwinds and 11 brass instruments) with lush neo-Romantic passages; his vision of Lovecraft is not all cries and cringes, as the first movement’s swells on full strings (led by guest concertmaster Justin Bruns) evince. The music is redolent of tone poems by Strauss and Liszt. Among many of Connesson’s uses of dissonance, for which he has a knack, there are quarter tones that represent the narrator of the stories, Randolph Carter.

In the thick of it, Les cités accomplishes terrific – and nearly terrifying – climaxes capped with strident brass and timpani. But they are  offset by mysterious islands of a devious serenity; you feel that something about this apparent calm after each outburst is amiss when a subdued and impressionistic celesta adds a sense of foreboding. And then enters an ominous march led by timpani, as we traverse through Lovecraft’s dream city of Celephaïs. A 12-tone row introduces us to the city of Kadath, while a solo viola (principal Yu Jin) squeezes out strange sonorities, followed by forte surges on edgy strings that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Shostakovich symphony.

But Connesson’s chameleon-like ability to draw from past and present influences is moderated by his supreme control of the dramatic and episodic arcs that consolidate his music’s wide-ranging roots. Although he aims for a variety of orchestral colorings and combinations, his style is never ostentatious. He arranges a multitude of musical ideas into layers that recur and develop in sequences that burst with activity and wane into thinned-out textures, so it’s never overwhelming. In this regard, his music isn’t far removed from that of the late Henri Dutilleux.

Krzysztof Urbański is music director in Indianapolis and Hamburg.
(© Caroline Doutre)

With a slim build that belies his incredible mastery of the orchestra, the Polish-born Urbański – music director of the Indianapolis Symphony since 2011 and principal guest conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie since 2015 – drew out orchestral colorings from the large palette at his disposal with sharp focus. Often on tiptoe, he pushed for strong climaxes with splayed arms, especially as he drove a piece into a forceful close. But he also showed a lightness of touch in quieter moments, especially in the Mozart.

He took the outer movements of the 31st Symphony a little on the brisk side; despite adding a jovial freshness to the score, that speed didn’t quite allow for the contrasts in dynamics at the end of cadential phrases to be fully savored, particularly early in the first movement. But what will be remembered the most about this performance is the substitution of Mozart’s original Andantino second movement for the later-composed Andante that is usually performed (following the Paris premiere in 1778, Mozart wrote a new second movement).

Urbański interrupted the performance at the end of the first movement to comment on the history of the two versions; he then had the orchestra play short segments from each and, no kidding, asked the audience to choose which they wanted to hear, to be selected by the louder of two rounds of applause. With the lighthearted entr’acte over, Urbański infused his slower tempo with an ethereal softness that was as dreamlike as Lovecraft’s imaginary cities. This was carried over to Debussy’s Faun, also premiered in Paris, which Urbański and his woodwinds (highlighted by principal flute Karen Evans Moratz) turned into a showcase for expert phrasing, as they accomplished subtle swells and wanes, adding the same dreamy lightness. It was an image from The City of Light – a Parisian delight.