After being absent for a couple or so years, conductor Jun Märkl walks into the Symphony Centre Tuesday morning, and by the following Friday he has honed the Indianapolis Symphony players into a generally razor-sharp ensemble for two war horses in a well filled Circle Theatre. German/Japanese violinist Arabella Steinbacher, 33, joined the German conductor, opening with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, perhaps the finest essay in its genre. Märkl continued after the break with Berlioz' ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14.
As violin concertos go, there are none which match the verve and sparkle, coupled with the lyric beauty of Mendelssohn's Op. 64, a work in which he reached a musical density at age 35--with but three more years to live--equal to his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written when he was 17! (Mozart almost reaches it with his "Turkish" Violin Concerto [No. 5 in A, K. 219].)
Though Steinbacher generally delivered a lovely singing tone in the slow (2nd) movement, her bowing was a bit inconsistent in the fast movements, varying from white to wobbly, occasionally producing imperfect intonation. Her rapid passage work tended to run those notes together. Still, this contrasts only against top tier playing of the work by few violinists on tour. Märkl's orchestra supplied more-than adequate balance, precision and energy while Steinbacher made no obvious slips. It's always a joy to hear this Mendelssohn, even when its playing lacks a degree of perfection.
Berlioz was only 27 when he completed the Symphonie Fantastique, launching the era of program music and large orchestras. For a work this elaborate, based on his obsession with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, the composer's programmatic elements outshine his purely musical ones, possibly a product of a somewhat demented genius who did everything to excess. Though the result has entered the mainstream of symphonic repertory success, I find it difficult to enjoy all of its five movements as pure music. For example, the 15-minute middle movement seems interminably long, with insufficient music to carry its load.
Conducting from memory, Märkl made the most of Berlioz' material, from "Reveries - Passions, "A Ball," "Scene in the Countryside," "March to the Scaffold," through the noisy "Dream of the Witches' Sabbath." English hornist Roger Roe was an exemplary soloist at the start and end of "Countryside."
The two Berlioz chimes, heard from offstage during the final movement, failed to stay on the beat as the movement progressed--very obviously audible as they were quite loud. The two bass drums, located halfway upstage on the right side, failed to resonate into the hall as well as in a previous performance where they were fully upstage toward the left side. These picayune points aside, Märkl gave us a roller-coaster ride throughout. And the Symphonie Fantastique is unvaryingly a crowd pleaser. May 8; Hilbert Circle Theatre