ISO salutes romantic love 

André Watts appears for MacDowell Concerto

click to enlarge Guest conductor Gilbert Varga
  • Guest conductor Gilbert Varga

Programs with a theme need not attach themselves to a date. To wit, Friday's ISO program offerings showed a 'love' connection, but this weekend did not contain Valentine's Day. The ardor shown by Franck, MacDowell, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, was as much musical as it was sexual, even though all drew from the "Romantic" era in music--c.1828 - 1933. It is safe to say that if this period were excised from the classical repertoire, symphony orchestras could not exist today in their present form; they would have lost their "bread and butter." And this despite musicians, musicologists, and critics carrying the banner for modern music.

Though the Edward MacDowell Piano Concerto in D Minor, Op. 23 (1886) contains no love theme, it has a strong "love" connection with the composer's contemporaneous falling in love with and marrying Marian Nevins. It's through the good graces of veteran pianist André Watts that Op. 23 is familiar to us as the best known American Romantic concerto. He's performed it at least three times here over two decades--the only pianist to play it at all. Guest conductor Gilbert Varga assumed the podium for this weekend's concerts.

Opening with a slow movement, the orchestra observed the Larghetto calmato marking while the piano burst forth with rapid passage work, long scale runs and big, splashy chords. In the second movement, marked Presto giocoso, the orchestra picked up the pace to join, as it were, Watts, who continued his domination of his instrument. Whereas he rode the damper pedal somewhat excessively in the first movement, he backed off that excess in the final two, once again showing his power, emanating from his shoulders, through his upper and lower arms, wrists and fingers. Though the MacDowell is not a war-horse concerto, Watts always makes it an interesting account.

click to enlarge Veteran pianist Andre Watts
  • Veteran pianist Andre Watts

The Friday concert (also scheduled for Thursday morning and Saturday at the Circle, and Sunday afternoon at the Carmel Palladium) began with the first ever ISO performance of César Frank's "Psyché et Eros," a symphonic poem from his incidental music to Psyché (1888). Lasting about ten minutes, its main theme is excessively given, causing one to infer the musical portrayal to be of the lovers wrapped about one another forever. Chaste love?

Following the break, we heard one of Romanticism's most erotic pieces ever written--the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. The Prelude, by itself, depicts carnal love as it progresses through unresolved sequences, building to a terrifying climax, one which (so the story goes) caused Wagner contemporary Hans von Bulow to "ejaculate in his pants." Though joined as a concert piece--which Wagner did himself (he knew their commercial value) the "Liebestod" (love-death) comes five hours later in the opera than the Prelude, which begins it. In the opera, Isolde sings the melodic line; in the excerpt it's mostly the strings. Varga's management of the Prelude's evolving crescendo did not have the effect on the audience (as far as I could tell) it had on von Bulow; suffice to say it was stirring enough.

Varga ended this "love fest" with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasia, one which sees a session with Friar Lawrence, the fights between the Montague's and the Capulets, and another erotic love theme. Our conductor's management of the fight scenes brought about good precision at a fast tempo, with just a little raggedness at the opening sequence. Overall, the Tchaikovsky saw four-star conducting. April 15

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