ISO Classical Series Program No. 19; Hilbert Circle Theatre; June 2-4.
Though his English is far from perfect, Matthias Bamert is a great talker. He proved this as a guest of Geoffrey Lapin, host of the pre-concert Words-on-Music on Friday, prior to Bamert's conducting the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's next-to-last classical program of this season as a quick, phone-in replacement for Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu.
All Lapin had to do was to feed Bamert the right questions regarding his experiences with certain past greats in the music world, principally the redoubtable late conductor, Leopold Stokowski. The accounts we got proved among the most fascinating we've heard in that discussion series.
Regrettably, Bamert was less than top-notch as the conductor-de-jour -- called in at the veritable last minute, and perhaps, as a result, being less than optimally prepared. Featuring guest soloist Antti Siirala -- also Finnish, the program's featured work was the mighty Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15. Though written in 1858 when Brahms was only 25, it is every bit the equal of the composer's Second Piano Concerto from 23 years later, when he was writing most of the other large-scale works we best know him by.
Siirala seemed a bit tentative in the concerto's opening movement, making one or two slips, but more importantly playing beneath the orchestra such that his passage work could not always be heard. He and the orchestra failed to capture all the drama and lyricism inherent in those 23 minutes.
The slow movement (the most moving and inspired Adagio Brahms ever wrote), however, brought Siirala out of his musical closet: His slight toying with those pianistic figurations, which appear modeled after late-Beethoven, made them glow with expressiveness, stirring indescribable emotions enriched by those sublime orchestral interjections.
All considered, the Rondo finale came off better than the 23-minute first movement, with Siirala maintaining his competition with the orchestra, and now revealing in full his excellent finger work. Bamert's orchestra gave us a generally good account of Brahms' rich instrumentation, especially in the fugal section.
Bamert opened the program with the first ISO performance ever of Haydn's Symphony No. 96 in D ("Miracle"), the fourth of his final 12 "London" symphonies, which form the cream of his symphonic crop. For that matter, when have we seen programmed the greatest of Haydn's final 12: No. 94 ("Surprise"), No. 98, No. 101 ("Clock"), No. 102 and No. 104 ("London")?
I can't recall any of those being played since I've been attending ISO concerts (and guess how long that's been). These, along with several of Mozart's, represent the finest symphonic works from the 18th century, and deserve hearings, as Mozart's seem to get.
But, as often happens in a string quartet program opening with one of Haydn's, No. 96 got a wholly routine performance, the conductor beating a tempo and the orchestra going through the motions: little precision, no verve, no real excitement. Perhaps we need one of those I listed above to better inspire our performers into action. Especially since those works don't seem to be programmed either.
However . . . Bamert got his players on track with Richard Strauss's ensuing tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28 (1895). A roguish, prankish 13th-century figure, Till's hijinks were captured for all time in this 15-minute orchestral romp, including his sentencing and hanging.
It represented a humorous departure from either of Strauss's surrounding poems, his somber Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 and his philosophic Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30. Till seemed to catch up both conductor and players in expressing its fun and frivolity.