Review: ISO's Opening Night Gala 

click to enlarge Stellar violinist Hilary Hahn - PETER MILLER
  • Stellar violinist Hilary Hahn
  • Peter Miller

The Friday festivities preceding and following the ISO's first concert of 2013-2014 -- all constituting the orchestra's Opening Night Gala -- exuded a special flair. The large yellow-and-beige bulbs festooned above the stage and scattered throughout the lobbies like oversized Christmas ornaments, plus the hall's brand new seats and carpeting, proclaimed, "We have recovered from last year. We are moving onward and upward."

Adding to that sense of optimism, Krzysztof Urbański has extended his contract as music director from four years, beginning in 2011, to six years, ending in 2017. And to lend a special celebratory character to this short concert, starting at an unusual 9 p.m., Urbański featured as guest soloist, Hilary Hahn. At 33, she sits atop the pantheon of stellar violinists having visited Indy's environs over the last generation.

And once again Hahn, a native of Lexington, Va. who grew up in Baltimore, confirmed her exalted stature with Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 (1880). A four-movement work based on Scottish folk songs and cast in a slow-fast-slow-fast format, the fast movements especially are filled with Scottish-like rhythms, with the Finale indeed exuding a Scottish "burr." Still, this was German music, harmonically conservative for its era.

Hahn wove her way throughout the piece with that ease, agility, and tonal perfection she gave us in her three previous ISO appearances--and in her Palladium recital a year ago. She is one of the few string players I could savor just hearing her draw her bow across a string for a perfect vibrato. In the Bruch, however, Hahn varied her vibrato on occasion to playing nearly "white," which seemed to work well where she employed it. She did the same for her encore, following a thundering, standing ovation: Bach's "Sarabande" from his D Minor Partita for solo violin. (She announced it as "from Bruch to Bach.")

Urbański concluded with a concert favorite of most everybody's, Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73. The most genial and pastoral of Brahms' "famous four," it is certainly equal in musical depth to his other three. Indeed, of all composers who adorn the standard repertoire, Brahms is the most consistently masterful in all his Classical forms: symphonies, concertos, chamber music, etc.--while casting them in a Romantic idiom. Others who wrote greater music also wrote much more lesser music (Bach being excepted, of course).

Urbański's nuances in each of the four movements were chiefly dynamic; he kept a steady tempo, with the Allegretto grazioso-marked third movement on the fast side. But he had his players in lock step from start to finish, with well nigh perfect balances and precise playing. Robert Danforth's solo horn work deserves special mention. This excellence in conducting and playing of a concert warhorse marks a good beginning for the ISO's upcoming season. Sept. 20; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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