Review: ISO Classical Series Program No. 5 

4 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre
Jan. 7-8

The Happy New Year and the glad tidings going with it don’t necessarily translate to celebrating the event the first weekend following — at the Symphony. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra typically doesn’t draw huge crowds for its first January weekend concert, but Friday’s turnout saw a real pittance of patrons, the Circle’s mezzanine seats considerably more than half empty. It’s true that the cold, snowy evening may have contributed.

Those who might have come but didn’t missed an exciting concert with a first rate guest conductor, Gilbert Varga, returning from last season. We heard, as the centerpiece, the performance debut of Claude Baker’s (b. 1948) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, From Noon to Starry Night, dedicated to the ISO’s former music director Mario Venzago — who had suggested the piece to Baker, inspired by Walt Whitman poetry and featuring pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Framing the concerto were two repertoire standards. Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527 opened the concert, and Varga closed it with César Franck’s well-known Symphony in D Minor (1888), written near the end of his life.

Lasting half an hour and containing five movements, each after a Whitman poem, the IU-based Baker Concerto mixes many modern styles and borrows bits and pieces (deliberately) from other 20th-century composers. Of particular interest is his use of percussion bells in tandem with the piano (and two octaves above), creating an unusual-but-pleasing timbre (“color” is the term musicians seem to prefer, with its visual allusion).

Though Movement III, “Lilacs,” offers a completely tonal (i.e. both melodious and harmonious) opening, it fails to connect well with Baker’s remaining material, much of it completely non-rhythmic, filled with long pauses and repetitive fixtures. Hamelin’s piano work completely integrated with the orchestra, as opposed to offering virtuosic display passages “against” the orchestra as in the Romantic warhorses; both soloist and players seemed well rehearsed.

For a listener completely unfamiliar with Whitman’s poetry (and how many in that sparse crowd do you suppose were?), the music fails to provide an overarching view of itself, more directly indicated by Baker’s statement to the audience that his composition literally follows the verses’ meanings. Even though these five partially connected movements are listenable as absolute music and it’s performance well honed, I’d surmise that with his new Piano Concerto, Baker meets his audience only close to half way.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which some hail as the world’s greatest opera, is his only stage work whose overture opens with part of a scene, the “supper,” near the opera’s climax — its denouement. Overtures in Mozart’s period usually contained no material from their ensuing operas, merely establishing their mood. Following this dramatic intro, the ensuing Allegro is not heard in the opera but captures its comic and lyric elements. Varga gave us a reading notably above routine, with the inflections and precision due this short masterwork. Since this overture melds directly into the staged opera (again unusual for that period) with Leporello’s opening “Notte e giorno,” an ending cadence must be provided in a concert performance. Varga used a lengthier one I hadn’t previously heard, first switching to Leporello’s key, then an abrupt bridge to end the piece in its D major key. I found it an agreeable novelty.

Franck’s only symphony, in three movements, is one of just two non-programmatic French Romantic symphonies holding the repertoire boards — the other being Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, written almost concurrently (1886). (Note: The early Bizet symphony is almost too “Classical” to fit the category, and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is quite programmatic.) Opening with a turn heard first in Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, Franck takes it in a uniquely different direction, its entire cast making it resemble a “French Wagner.” The English horn is prominent in the slow movement, to its world-premiere detriment, and the piece uses two cornets as well as two trumpets, making a quite brassy effect when Franck chose to do so. Varga has been in the top echelon of ISO guest conductors in the last two years; with the Franck, he once again affirmed his reputation.

click to enlarge walt-whitman-1.jpg

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