Review: Leppard conducts Classical Christmas 

click to enlarge Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby
  • Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby

Saturday's annual Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Classical Christmas program, created by Raymond Leppard when he was the ISO's music director, is the 15th in a row, beginning in 1998, with all but the first few held in the Scottish Rite Ballroom. This, however, is his first concert year without an appearance of IU's Apollo's Voice, whom I missed -- a 16 voice choir created for this series by Jan Harrington. Leppard partially compensated by opening with Corelli's well known "Christmas Concerto," the Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6. No. 8 (1714). As usual, our conductor laureate gave his string players excellent direction and us an excellent account of its five diverse movements, with its vaguely "Christmas-y" colors.

Leppard then did something he's very good at: in this case making his own arrangements for the next four Italian offerings, a mix of pieces by Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) and the great Renaissance/Baroque crossover master Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Three of them were opera excerpts and featured mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, whose rich, opulent voice was perhaps not in keeping with the singing tradition of that era, nonetheless is probably better accepted by audiences used to the full-throated vocalism of more recent centuries. I especially liked her in "Voglia il ciel" from Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.

After the break, winds and brasses joined the strings for a complete change of pace, The Lark Ascending, Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), or "VW" as Leppard calls him. ISO concertmaster Zach de Pue soloed in this, making it the most moving offering of the late afternoon, and provoked by the composer's wistful, pastel harmonic patina -- in my view, one of VW's best works. It further compensated for the absence of Apollo's Voice.

Regrettably, Leppard closed with a piece of froth, unworthy to follow what had preceded. The Sinfonia in E-flat, Op. 18, No. 1, for two orchestras by that vanguard of the galante style, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), sounds much like early Mozart (he was J. S. Bach's youngest son). Though I looked, there weren't two orchestras on stage. Vapid melodies, simplistic harmonies, primitive sonata form -- I have yet to hear any J. C. Bach work which even begins to plumb the emotional depths of great music. Furthermore his middle name is insufficient to merit a place in any Christmas program. Dec. 8; Scottish Rite Cathedral

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