We’ve always thought of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s festive Opening Night Gala as a classical season launcher: the first concert of any series beginning when school starts. This time, however, the ISO pre-empted itself with an 11 a.m. Coffee Concert three days earlier — on NFL/Colts-season inaugural day — and at Clowes Hall yet. This ISO schedule had been formulated last winter before anyone knew of (or thought about) a potential clash of sports and arts venues on a cloudy, humid Thursday, Sept. 6.
But last Sunday was indeed an opening night for the ISO — a sold-out Gala for the first time in years. Guest soprano, Met star and Indy native and resident Angela Brown undoubtedly helped bring in the extra patrons, adding her own charisma to the flower/fern festooned Circle Theatre. The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir made an unusual Gala appearance as well. Unlike a year ago, ISO music director Mario Venzago was on hand to lead the festivities (as well as conducting the Thursday Coffee Concert).
Following our National Anthem, the Gala opened with a crisp, incisive reading of Verdi’s by now locally familiar Overture to La forza del destino. In the last several years, this piece has been programmed several times — as though Venzago were trying to get it right. Well, our maestro got not only this but everything else on the program right, in perhaps the best-played Gala I can recall since the event debuted in the late ’80s.
Could Zachary De Pue have had something to do with it? Making his first appearance (not counting the Coffee Concert) as the ISO’s newly appointed concertmaster (see his interview in last week’s NUVO), the strings — all of them — seemed to exude an extra sheen throughout the program. Even the cellos and string basses articulated their parts as we’ve seldom heard them, notably in the concluding Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture. But then this performance of what is annually the Symphony on the Prairie Fourth of July pre-fireworks pot boiler was special in many ways. More on that later.
As in Brown’s previous ISO appearance in March 2006, the orchestra played Verdi’s Triumphal March and Grand Ballet from Aida’s second act. This time, however, we had the choir supporting, as it does in any Aida production. While his march sections were appropriately stately, Venzago’s ballet music was breathlessly nimble, yet nicely controlled, every note in its place. The chorus of predominantly female voices provided a perfectly intoned coloration that clearly enhances any all-orchestral version (but you still can’t hear the words).
Even the Weber Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65, with Venzago using the Weingartner orchestration (the Berlioz one is more common) came across unusually well-shaped and -inflected, not the casual run-through we mostly expect. But Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture solennelle, Op. 49 … That Venzago could employ the chorus so skillfully from the opening Russian hymn, sampling it through the following sonata structure to the thunderingly distended conclusion — and at the same time put shape and nuance throughout the orchestral parts, makes this piece deserve its warhorse status in spades. You don’t need cannons for this thing; you just need to hear it played well."