Hot Shostakovich 


ISO Classical Series Program No. 2
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Oct. 5-7

In a three-work program last weekend, there was only one scheduled piece that, in the long haul, mattered. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Kwamé Ryan inflamed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 as fully as anyone ever has — a “hot” performance, as an esteemed colleague would term it. Born in Canada and raised in Trinidad, Ryan said he loved this symphony from an early age, and it showed.

Before the Shostakovich, Ryan tackled two other quite disparate works. He opened with a 10-minute contemporary trifle, The Mannheim Rocket by well-known 68-year-old American composer John Corigliano. Its title refers to a progression upward in the scale, from softer to louder, popular during the Classical era for generating excitement, and used with great success by the then celebrated Mannheim Orchestra in pieces by Mozart and his contemporaries.

Its Corigliano counterpart features a plethora of percussion (including a police whistle), which, with the rest of the orchestra assisting, works its way up from ominous bass registers to instrumental heights — along with occasional stops and looks through the rear-view mirror along the way. As Words on Music host Geoffrey Lapin put it, Mannheim Rocket was “lots of fun.”

Violinist Alexander Kerr then joined Ryan for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219, with his Adagio in E, K. 261 substituted for the K. 219 slow movement (also in E). While K. 261 is a worthy piece — adding flutes to an orchestra otherwise featuring only oboes, horns and strings — and is often played and recorded on its own, the K. 219 original is by far the more beautiful. On this occasion the change perhaps mattered less as the performance proved disappointing in most respects. Ryan took a tempo too rushed for either ensemble or soloist to meld properly. Following Kerr’s first-movement cadenza, parts of the orchestra sounded out of kilter by something like half a measure. And Kerr himself, who obviously knows his way around a fiddle, seemed insecure with the breakneck pace.

ISO principal violist Michael Strauss then joined Kerr for a planned encore, Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia and Sarabande with Variations for Violin and Viola on a theme by Handel. Whatever reservations one may have had about Kerr’s playing in the Mozart were nicely erased herein. Strauss, as always, carried his own weight with his partner in communicating an interesting blend of Baroque and late Romantic elements. The Halvorsen put a sheen on Kerr’s violin work that had failed in the Mozart.

Writing for and against the reality of the Soviet regime holding sway over his entire artistic life, Dimitry Shostakovich (1906-1971) completed his dreadful, dismal, dolorous, dreary, excruciatingly long Fourth Symphony in 1936. Just a year later he produced what many think to be the finest symphony to emerge from 20th century Modernism, his Fifth. It communicates as much soul and emotion as any symphony cloaked in Modern harmonic idioms and instrumentation. And Ryan picked up every one of them in a superlatively moving reading, the audience response underwriting it.


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