Beethoven and Tetzlaff 

ISO Classical Series Program No. 8
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Jan. 19-20

At 75, David Baker has a lifetime of composing some 2,000 pieces of all sizes and shapes. And while only time and the public rule the fortunes of new compositions written at any age, our longtime IU composer/jazz-performer and Indianapolis native gave us a sensational debut last Friday of his latest: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra-commissioned Dancing Shadows. ISO music director Mario Venzago was back on the podium for one of those all-too-rare instances of new music evoking an overwhelmingly positive audience response. Baker’s accolades were entirely deserved.

Cast in three parts: I. “Dancing Shadows,” II. “Fading Memories” and III. “Fleeting Images,” the work is filled with melody, announced immediately by the strings in C major and minor, with pastel harmonies suggesting a bygone era, but instrumented in a unique way. Baker’s tasteful use of percussion creates brand new colors as his rhythmic pace picks up and slows down. We hear many solo parts, but in “Fading Memories,” a saxophone, played by Otis Murphy, begins to dominate the textures. Then follows a succession of lines in F, F minor, B-flat and B-flat minor — many carried by the sax. In “Fleeting Images,” the tunes and harmonies evoke world-weariness, perhaps akin to the blues, yet somehow different. Baker’s been at this a while and clearly knows what he’s doing.

As the sax serenely ends the piece in A minor, I realized something noteworthy: I could identify key signatures throughout the piece, something rarely possible in new or even “modern” music. Baker thus demonstrates that there is something new to say in writing that carries older baggage. And Venzago and his huge-force phalanx helped him to say it well.

Continuing the ISO’s month-long Midwinter Beethoven Festival, Venzago engaged Christian Tetzlaff for the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, a piece our conductor had last programmed less than three years ago with Gil Shaham as the soloist. I noted then that the Venzago/Shaham collaboration “was filled with punch and verve throughout,” and praised Shaham’s gorgeous tone.

Well, if anything, the Venzago/Tetzlaff combo has at least equaled if not bested the earlier one. Like Shaham, the 40-year-old Hamburg, Germany, native offers a beautifully controlled vibrato, always exactly pitch-centered. Like Shaham, no matter how softly he plays, Tetzlaff’s notes envelope the hall, for which Venzago’s ensemble control gets his share of credit. This was as “dynamic” a performance as I’ve witnessed, revitalizing, in my view, one of Beethoven’s few overrated large-scale works.

Venzago opened his program with a vibrant, seamless reading of Ravel’s Rhapsody Espagnole.

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