Review: ISO deploys high-wattage Grieg 

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click to enlarge Pianist Andre Watts
  • Pianist Andre Watts

Now 65, and with a countless number of visits through the years hosted by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, celebrated IU pianist André Watts once again proved he retains all his chops -- this time with the equally celebrated Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. A large Circle Theatre crowd was on hand Friday to witness both his technical and musical artistry in this enduring masterwork.

Though Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was mostly a miniaturist composer, his sole concerto of any stripe appeared in 1868 when he was only 25. Perhaps taking a stylistic cue from Robert Schumann's equally famous concerto (1845) in the same key, Grieg wove some of his own Nordic pensiveness into a display work of equal musical depth.

From the opening drum roll and those cascading chords to the simple-but-fetching main theme, Watts proclaimed that he was in complete control, his power-in-reserve coursing through his shoulders, arms, hands and fingers as he hovered over his keyboard. As he wends his way through the movement's hauntingly wistful second subject, its dynamic conclusion, its short development, its modified recap, cadenza and coda, we never hear technical grandstanding for its own sake--but rather a revelation of the work's musical depth.

And much the same for the concerto's succeeding two movements: Watts makes all the notes in his passage work audible with a controlled legato and the right amount of pedaling. Following the resounding A-major concluding chord, the standing ovation lasted long enough for the audience to be demanding an encore -- one which they never got. Watts had done his job.

Estonian guest conductor, Eri Klas, opened with a now celebrated work of his fellow countryman Arvo Pärt, Fratres (1983). Written for a number of different instrumental combinations, I was first exposed to it by the Kronos Quartet some two decades ago--and was transfixed by the beauty of its shifting harmonies, along with the near perfection which the contemporary-leaning string foursome made of it.

Counting Friday, I've heard the ISO play it with string orchestra and timpani twice. The "choir" effect of all those strings detract just a bit from the perfect triads the Kronos provided, as the music timelessly shifts through chordal transitions from soft to loud and back to soft again, over a ten-minute arc. We need more "new" music taking this approach.

Sibelius' luxuriant Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 (1899) closed the program. With some throwbacks to Wagner and constructed almost identically like Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony (in the same key), No. 1's luxuriance is comparative to how he evolved as a symphonist: With No. 2, he repeated much of his Romantic indulgences including an excessively used broad theme in the finale. But from No. 3 through No. 7, the textures were not only leaner, but more modernist. It is perhaps a statement on public preference that his first two symphonies remain the most popular of the seven.

Klas's reading was aptly energetic, with some ensemble balances occasionally problematic -- much of Diane Evans' harp playing (this is the only Sibelius symphony calling for a harp) was inaudible till her brief solo parts. Perhaps it is more a composer related issue, as in recordings the harp is miked, and audible throughout. Otherwise the symphony's Finale came across as a tour-de-force with Klas's "forces" delivering good but unexceptional playing. April 26-28; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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Tom Aldridge

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