In last weekend’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 14th of their 20-concert season, the “biggest” work was the concluding Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43. The medium-sized number was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19, with Alina Pogostkina (formerly Pogostkin) as soloist. But I was most enraptured with a short piece I’d never previously heard, which opened the program: Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op. 17 (1903) — a Danish work led by a Finnish conductor, Hannu Lintu, making his first ISO guest appearance.
Helios starts on the soft bass strings, gradually building from dawn through the various orchestral choirs to splendorously broad daylight with an overarching theme, transitioning into a crisp fugato, back to the theme, then languorously settling back to the basses and a “soft” dusk. Lintu seemed to have the exact measure of the overture, with Nielsen’s harmonies showing just sufficient 1903 Modernism to reveal his originality, without becoming as obtuse as his symphonies, which I find largely a bore. In any case, the Helios proved an auspicious beginning.
Many may remember Alina Pogostkina as the sixth-place Laureate in the 2002 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (she reportedly added the “a” to Pogostkin to feminize her Russian surname). Written in 1917, about the same time as his more famous “Classical” Symphony, Prokofiev’s D Major Concerto shows the composer in a more subdued “enfant terrible” style, making scale-work and high registers highlights of his soloist writing.
Though Pogostkina handled these figurations well, she was occasionally too subdued to be heard above the strings in back of her. And though her tonal timbres were less controlled than optimal, she did save her best work for the concerto’s best part: its conclusion. And for that, she got a standing ovation.
Of his seven epoch changing symphonies, the second is Sibelius’ last truly Romantic one, seeming to glorify Romantic excess, in the length of and the repetition in the second and fourth movements. Lintu’s reading of his countryman’s popular work showed a significant degree of polish and control — though his pauses in the second and third movements (especially in the latter, the one before the first “trio”) were excessively long — as though he took a smoking break … but then that isn’t allowed in the hall.
Despite Lintu’s excellent account of the final movement, I found its big, dominating tune and countersubject created an unending cadence almost as long as the movement itself; I was ready to quit before it was over. Next time let’s program the composer’s third, fourth, sixth and seventh symphonies before returning to the second.