Joshua Bell, now rated by many as the world’s No. 1 violinist, is a guaranteed crowd magnet no matter where he appears — but especially here in Indy. This Bloomington-born and -bred artist rang in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s new season last weekend, not only launching the orchestra’s classical series but appearing in its formerly separate Opening Night Gala. Saturday’s Gala, for the first time, was not an opening night, but the third evening in a row with Bell and the return of ISO music director Mario Venzago in a program featuring a huge orchestra and virtuosic violin work.
Following the accustomed National Anthem, Venzago began with Richard Strauss’ “philosophic” tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Op. 30, a product of 1896 (when Strauss was 32). Often heralded as being famous for the use of its opening “Sunrise” as a title theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the fact is that its current universal identification comes from its continuing adaptation from that movie into TV commercials and music of all genres: It’s perpetually before the public.
Regrettably, the Circle’s “refurbished” theater organ, which yours truly has been hinting at over recent months, is not only not yet completely refurbished, but reportedly will not be ready in time for the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, originally scheduled for the Oct. 17-18 program, but now replaced by Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Hopefully this not-so-new organ will be ready for the ISO’s December “Yuletide” series; don’t hold your breath, however.
This meant that the low, resonant pedal point that opens Zarathustra was played on an electronic organ, as has always previously been the case. As heard from the First Mezzanine, the instrument was a bit tepid; it did not throb my kneecaps as the trumpet swept up the C-G-C signature motif. That aside, the half-hour work was magnificently conceived, if less than perfectly executed. Once again, as in previous seasons, Venzago and Strauss find a resonance that many more famous conductors miss. His sense of balance, tempo and dynamic control throughout this many-faceted look at Nietzschien philosophy was nicely supported by ISO concertmaster Zachary De Pue’s beautiful violin solos in the piece’s waltz sections. Unfortunately, there were ensemble slips here and there and a very bad off-measure entrance (in Friday’s concert) that deprived us from the near perfection Venzago had achieved in previous Strauss works.
Bell followed with the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61 (1880), the composer’s final and only mature work in the genre. Technically speaking, our native Hoosier was at the top of his game, sawing effortlessly over his four strings, highlighting his solo passages while still being heard above the orchestra in their ensemble work. His handling of the ethereal harmonics that end the slow movement was breathtaking — he made it look easy. His vibrato remains thin, rapid and a bit “busy,” sometimes going white. But in Bell’s case, the persona dominates the tone, with the ensuing ovation thundering. The audience clamored for an encore they didn’t get.
Venzago concluded with a popular favorite, Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, coming just a year after Zarathustra. Though considered a scherzo, its jaunty three-beats-to-a-measure is actually at a minuet tempo, but it sure as hell doesn’t sound like a minuet. Taking it at a deliberate pace, Venzago got the polish he had wanted from the Strauss work. Thus, with a few caveats, the weekend opener was a triumph.