Hilbert Circle Theatre
Midori was last here 25 years ago. She then was 14. She was a Japanese violin prodigy. Last Thursday she returned to open the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's classical series (an 11 a.m. Coffee concert, followed by Friday/Saturday-evening subscription concerts) with an absolutely stunning performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61. It not only was the most moving account of a concerto I've never much cared for, but Midori caressed her Guarneri del Gesu instrument as I've never heard any violin played before. Moreover it surpassed violinist Gil Shaham's account of the Beethoven with the ISO earlier in this decade — one which I had lauded. With Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena returning to the podium, Midori (she dropped her surname years ago) added considerable nuance, both in tempo and dynamics, to the one Beethoven concert standard which really needs it. Its square phrasing, coupled with a surfeit of vapid (i.e. tonic/dominant) harmonies and surfacy scales, became tools for expressiveness under her fingers. She often plays "white," with no vibrato, adding just a touch on held lines, but she makes it fit Beethoven's writing as no other player I've heard has. And just as Shaham did with Op. 61, Midori's dulcet tones always shown through the orchestra like haloes. She saw elements in this work I had never been aware of, between her louds and softs — and sold me on them, most especially in the excessively long, repetitive first movement. The mid-sized audience gave Midori a hearty, standing ovation.
Mena opened his program with a prodigal work of short-lived Spanish Classical composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga (1806-1826), the Overture to his opera Los esclavos felices ("The Happy Slaves"), written when he was 13. Though richly harmonized, it is clearly a juvenile work, plus Arriaga was no Mozart. (Come to think of it, Mozart <at 13> was no Mozart.) Though choosing a short trifle, Mena undoubtedly desired to expose an unknown work of his fellow countryman — though the Arriaga had one previous playing here in 2003.
Béla Bartók's well known Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which Mena excellently conducted and played, proved a step down from the captivation wrought by Midori's Beethoven. Yet throughout the five movements, with the second movement's "game of the pairs" between trumpets and winds, the elegiac third movement and the fourth, with a deliberate allusion to Shostakovich's "Nazi" march from the opening of his Seventh Symphony, this was a solid performance.
This was Juanjo Mena's fourth appearance with the ISO in less than two years. Should we assume he is on a list — long or short — of potential replacement music directors? We've now been a year and two-plus months without one.