Review: ISO Symphonic Hits Program No. 6 

click to enlarge Xian Zhang
  • Xian Zhang

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Hilbert Circle Theatre, Oct. 28-29

A few weeks ago, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented a complete performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a 20th-century vocal/choral work, and filled the Circle to a near sell-out. This Friday's concert featured both the Schumann A Minor Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth symphony, war-horse standards extraordinaire, and saw a paltry turnout. Was it the World Series' game 7 pulling away symphony-goers in those numbers? One would suspect a demographic more diverse in its pursuits - but who knows?

Chinese conductor Xian Zhang served as the podium guest, and German Till Felner was the pianist for the Schumann. Zhang provided a podium powerhouse; she gave Schumann's bland orchestration some flair not usually encountered in more typical readings.

39-year-old Felner jumped into the fray with those opening cascading chords. From there throughout the miraculous first movement, we heard the two give Schumann's most inspired writing a unanimity of purpose, of conception, of execution. Though Felner's pianism did not show any prominent tempo or dynamic nuance, his consistency with Zhang's orchestra seemed to compensate to a fair degree. His deft handling of the notes, measures and phrases, notably in the first-movement cadenza -- Schumann's keyboard-writing peak -- impressed without causing one to forget what came before.

Zhang began her program with a five-minute trifle: the Overture to Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Capuletti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montegues, 1830) - a lighter take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet story. Evidently, Bellini, who popularized the "bel canto" singing style, liked shorter overtures than his predecessor Rossini, who, just a year earlier, had written his 15-minute Overture to William Tell. This was the last opera he would compose, despite having more than half his life yet to live.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 occupies the middle of the symphonic triptych which places the Russian composer in the top tier of Romantic symphonists. Though I would rate his No. 6 - the "Pathétique" - as his symphonic masterpiece, Tchaikovsky had plenty going for him in No. 4 and No. 5. For No. 5 we have the lovely horn solo opening its second movement - Andante cantabile - beautifully played by ISO principal hornist Robert Danforth.

But then we also have what is often called the "Providence" motive: dominating, linking and transforming itself throughout its four movements. Zhang took a measured tempo as compared with many typical performances, but I would only have preferred a faster reading during the Finale's bravura Allegro vivace section, which should always be taken at a swift pace. Otherwise Zhang made her tempi convincing with her control of the symphony's dynamics. Her account was wholly satisfying, if not quite memorable.

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Tom Aldridge

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