ISO Classical Series Program No. 18 Hilbert Circle Theatre April 6-8 Russian born conductor Mikhail Agrest came; he conducted; he conquered. Subbing at the “last minute” (as it were) for scheduled Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest podium artist Gilbert Varga (canceling for health reasons), Agrest once again proved that the right conductor can walk in “off the street” (as it were) and get the best from our city’s 87 foremost musicians. Thirty-one-year-old Agrest, currently conductor of Russia’s Marinsky Theatre Orchestra, also substituted Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral fantasy, Sadko, Op. 5, for Varga’s scheduled opener, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, and we were better off in the bargain. One of Rimsky’s early works (1867) later revised (1893) under his mature instincts (his seldom performed four-movement Antar Symphony is another) into a first-class tone picture and finally expanded into an opera in 1895, Sadko’s performance turned out excellent from all standpoints. Razor-sharp attacks, perfectly inflected dynamics and tempos made the work a coherent, “exotic” whole. Much acclaimed Canadian guest soloist James Ehnes, 30, then joined Agrest for Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53. A lovely, lyrically inclined work somewhat in the shadow of the composer’s later-written Cello Concerto, its first movement contains a famous motif right out of Maurice Jarre’s theme music to the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia (but you should ask yourself: Which came first?). Obviously a skilled violinist with virtuosic capabilities, Ehnes displayed unsatisfying tonal inconsistencies: at times a nervous, rapid, excessive vibrato; at others a too-lean one. Still, his technical command in the concerto’s barn-burning Finale impressed. For an encore, Renes offered Paganini’s solo Caprice No. 16 in G Minor, presenting the same tonal issues and compromising the innate beauty of his 1715 Stradivari instrument. Agrest saved his real fireworks till his final offering: 10 selected ballet excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (1936). Certainly among the Russian/Soviet composer’s finest orchestrated, most tuneful writing, this music has always been a crowd pleaser. The Circle Theatre audience certainly responded to Agrest’s shaping of the myriad emotional contrasts Prokofiev’s material evokes. Bring this guy back — will you?