Review: Classical Series No. 13 at the ISO 

3.5 stars

ISO Classical Series Program No. 13; Hilbert Circle Theatre; March 18-19

With the local debut of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s (b. 1928) Incantations for Solo Percussion and Orchestra (2009), the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra once again brought in master percussionist Colin Currie to manage a more modest front-stage phalanx of struck instruments than he has in past appearances. Mainly alternating between vibraphone and marimba, Currie dominates the orchestra as it supports him in many tonally harmonic intervals, providing a touch of minimalism in its repetitive cadence.

The 82-year-old Finnish composer, viewed as the most popular successor to Jean Sibelius, gives us an agreeable, likable, three-movement work inspired by the singing and dancing of Arctic shamans — on which you’ll have to take Rautavaara at his word.

On his two mallet instruments, Currie sometimes uses one stick per hand and sometimes two, moving rapidly between the instruments without missing an “assignment.” All in all, it was an enjoyable musical experience, led by the current music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Robert Spano.

Prior to the concerto, Spano opened with Sibelius’ most popular chestnut, Finlandia, Op. 26 (1999). Everybody knows it — or at least the patriotic hymn tune the composer introduces, it having since been incorporated into many Protestant hymnals and often titled “Be Still my Soul.”

Spano, yet another excellent guest conductor within the current panoply of those seemingly appearing here week after week, measured out the piece’s recipe like a great chef, incorporating the right ingredients in the right amounts at the right time. This was a Finlandia anybody could savor.

The program’s second half offered the two most popular orchestral works of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), The Fountains of Rome (1916), followed by The Pines of Rome (1924). While Fountains starts and ends softly, Pines begins loudly in the high treble and ends thunderously with a tumultuous, ovation-prompting cadence. Both works have four sections, each depicting its own set of fountains or pines found within the “eternal city,” bringing about abrupt mood changes in both sets of transitions.

Though both works are instrumented beautifully with a similar style — each employing a large, post-Romantic orchestra, it is Pines which appears the more grandiose and ear-catching. For example, we hear a recorded nightingale making its lovely call toward the end of Part 3, “The Pines of the Janiculum,” which the composer called for in the early days of recording and which surely must sound more lifelike in present day (I thought, for a moment, there was a trained bird onstage).

Respighi also scored six additional brass for the final “Pines of the Appian Way,” which players Spano placed on the upper stage in back of the other forces, to add to its depiction of Roman soldiers solemnly marching in “numberless steps.”

To undergird the sonic effect, Respighi also called for an organ’s low B-flat pedal point to begin a few measures into the section, to depict the ground quaking under the endless army’s boots — and vibrating the audience’s knee-caps. Where was it? Even though the ISO now owns a massive Wurlitzer theater organ, and I was told that it can be used from backstage — powered up to sound that B-flat, there was no organ used that evening (Friday).

In past performances of Pines, the ISO has sometimes used an electronic organ to fill the hall with that incredible bass — and sometimes not. Now that we have our own, and a real one (complete with pipes) at that, there’s no credible excuse for not using it, especially as there are so few classical repertoire pieces calling for it.

Aside from that bit of carping, I felt Spano’s account of both Respighi works showed that his high standards remain unabated.

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Tom Aldridge

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