Review: ISO plays super tone poem 

***1/2
click to enlarge Pianist Dejan Lazi&#263
  • Pianist Dejan Lazić

Super-Bowl weekend had its local musical counterpart offered by Krzysztof Urbański and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with its first performance ever of the "super" tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64 (1915). The last of Richard Strauss's nine tone poems, it is also the longest (50 minutes), using by far the largest number of players (typically 125). It also can be termed the most extravagant, with more "sound" than music.

As reported by ISO program annotator Marianne Williams Tobias, conductor Emmanuel Villaume (who has often guested here) stated: "There is something in it that appears decadent, over the top . . . If there was a kitchen sink on the summit, it would be there."

Yet, our young, Polish music director not only seems enamored of choosing large-scale works for his programming, but he consistently does them well; Alpine was no exception. Urbański wove his way through the 22 continuous sections--from "Night" through the arduous mountain ascent, to the "Summit" and back down through "Thunder and Tempest Descent," to "Sunset" and a return to "Night"--all with his forces at his beck and call.

We heard (and saw) a wind machine (also used in his earlier tone poem Don Quixote) and a thunder machine, plus the ISO's Wurlitzer organ, plus many offstage instruments, all playing right on cue. All the solo players--too many to name here--showed themselves at the top of their game.

Only lacking was the level of musical inspiration we hear more consistently in Strauss's tone poems from Don Juan (No. 2) through Ein Heldenleben (No. 7). And if Urbański wishes to continue with large-scale programming "firsts," he should consider Rheinhold Glière's Symphony No. 3 in B Minor (Ilya Muromets - 1911), an epic musical summation of the late Romantic "greats."

After captivating with his own piano revision of Brahms' Violin Concerto here last April, pianist Dejan Lazić; returned to thrill us with his techico-virtuosic acumen in Liszt's Totentanz (Dance of Death) for Piano and Orchestra. A set of "wild" variations on the famous Dies Irae plain chant, the work has always struck me as an exhibit of mostly splash -- but something Liszt could do as well as anybody. Musically it is a far cry from the composer's First Piano Concerto, his concerted masterpiece.

But Lazić's display prowess could not be ignored as his fingers ran like lightning up and down the keyboard, showing us passage, scale, chordal, octave and trill work which could take one's breath away -- while the orchestra had little to show for itself. At the work's opening, the chant is immediately proclaimed by the piano and the timpani. In this case the timpani won: I could not hear the piano at all through the opening statement.

Afterward the piano dominated. Lazić was given an extended thundering ovation, meriting a Liszt encore, taken from his 2nd set of Years of Pilgrimage - his "Italian Journey." Here we heard much more of Liszt, the musician.

Urbański began the program with Grieg's Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt--background music to Ibsen's poem of that name. A well known work with all four sections familiar to concert goers, it seemed so mild when compared with what followed as to almost play itself. Jan. 31- Feb. 1; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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