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ISO shares Wit with Haydn and Bruckner 

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click to enlarge Guest conductor Antoni Wit
  • Guest conductor Antoni Wit

A week after the packed houses of the reportedly highly successful "Hairspray" with ISO pops conductor Jack Everly, the Circle Theatre settled down, Friday, to serve up a typical half-house attendance for 2013's opening classical concert. Polish guest conductor Antoni Wit, who taught ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański in his formative years, made his ISO conducting debut with Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G (1787), followed by Anton Bruckner's much longer Symphony No. 4 in E-flat ("Romantic"-1880).

Wit had his orchestra rearranged for both works with the double basses upstage on the left on a riser, where the percussion players are usually located. The timpani and brass, also on the riser, were where we typically see them: respectively center and right. In Haydn's Classical era, orchestras were small and with the timpani mostly providing the sole percussion. Whereas 100 years later in Bruckner's time, the bass drum, cymbals, a triangle, a glockenspiel and harps were among those selectively added. With orchestras this large, only Bruckner eschewed the use of any of them.

But Bruckner's use of even the timpani was sparing: ISO timpanist Jack Brennan's hands lay fallow for long stretches in each of the four movements while three trombones, three trumpets, one tuba and five French horns blasted the hall with those unison sounds progressing up scales in a manner of which only Bruckner seemed disposed. In fact, from his third through his seventh symphonies, this God and Wagner loving (not necessarily in that order) savant composer followed a formula which he invented and which in turn died with him. More power to those who love it--and there are many. Sadly for me, I find it enervating.

On the other hand, the Scherzos (the third movement except for his final two symphonies) in his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies are each refreshingly interesting in their diverse ways. In No. 4 we have the horns doing a hunting-call fanfare with an original, effective harmonic shift. This carries on till, after a full stop, a more lyric version of the hunting theme is given. Then another full stop, and we hear, in the "trio" section, an entirely different array of tunes and harmonies--always softer and stretched out. Following another stop, the entire preceding Scherzo is again repeated, note for note. This is Bruckner's "formula" for all his scherzos.

Wit and his large forces did a creditable, if not outstanding, job wading through those melodic wisps intermingled with titanic brass chords and unisons, and those interminable repeats. With due respect, the audience gave Wit a thundering ovation. (But, save for the Scherzo, could any one of them hum a sustained tune from this "Romantic" symphony?)

By huge contrast, Wit's preceding Haydn No. 88 saw the Austrian Classical master at the height of his powers. With his Largo-marked slow movement, this is the finest symphony Haydn had written to that point, exceeded only by some of his later 12 London-written symphonies (Nos. 93-104). Wit nicely separated the Largo's profundity from the other three movements' iridescence and lively inventiveness.

Next weekend, we get to hear a reprise of Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony which, in 2009, debuted the Circle Theatre's newly acquired and restored Wurlitzer theater organ. The excellent guest cellist, Zuill Bailey, will return to solo in works by Ernest Bloch and Nico Muhly. Last but hardly least, Jun Märkl will make another of his many visits to the ISO podium. Hilbert Circle Theatre; Jan. 18-19

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