Review: ISO's "Symphonic Dances" sparkles 

***1/2
click to enlarge Pianist David Fray
  • Pianist David Fray

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Symphonic Hits mini-series embedded within its Friday-Saturday Classical series marks its distinction by starting half an hour earlier, and pointedly including so-called repertoire war horses. Friday's 7:30 p.m. concert did offer Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto, which should have drawn a sizeable house. Yet the Hilbert Circle Theatre appeared about one-quarter filled, a situation becoming more common this season than previously.

Still, those who might have come but didn't missed some top notch podium artistry by Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki in her concluding work, Rachmaninoff's (1873-1943) Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, effectively a three-movement, dance-like symphony containing the composer's most dazzling orchestration of his career -- and ironically his final work (1940). As in his more famous Paganini Rhapsody of seven years earlier, he slips in the "Dies Irae" plain chant to which he seemed drawn like a magnet.

Strongly rhythmic and filled with quick motivic thrusts, its first movement also borrows a haunting theme from his First Symphony for use near its end. Mälkki effectively used rubati (tempo variations) in each movement, the players following her with good precision, the extensive percussion work also on target throughout. Conducting without a baton, Mälkki's arm and hand motions are quick, precise and avoid the grand-standing body motion many conductors appear to deem necessary.

Any time the ISO programs a Mozart piano concerto is a time worth attending, even when its performance doesn't quite meet top-notch standards. British pianist David Fray sat on a "player" chair rather than the usual adjustable piano bench (he may have needed back support) for the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, the first of only two Mozart wrote in a minor key. Stormy and "Romantic" sounding, it was the favored Mozart concerto in the 19th century. Beethoven supplied cadenzas for its outer movements; regrettably Fray did not use them, as most do, but rather others I was unfamiliar with.

While the orchestra gave us a lustrous account, especially from Mozart's gorgeous wind writing, Fray's playing seemed rather one-dimensional. He rendered notes devoid of expressive highlights. With a bit of overpedaling, his keyboard work lacked zest and sparkle, though being essentially note perfect throughout. Despite possible conventional wisdom, Mozart is not easy to perform.

Mälkki began her program with a recent work of her fellow countryman, Mangus Lindberg (b. 1958), entitled Parada (2002) -- about 15 minutes worth of slow, ever-shifting, thick, full-orchestra harmonies, over which floated some rapid flourishes. Reading the composer's thoughts about this music provided no better appreciation of it than going into it stone cold. Feb. 24-25 at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

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