A year ago, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago programmed and conducted a potpourri of Halloween favorites. This time, ISO guest conductor JoAnn Falletta attached two smaller pieces to Hector Berlioz’s massive, revolutionary-and-excessively-programmed Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830), which ended and dominated the program. A musical, autobiographical future-projection of Berlioz’s love affair with actress Harriet Smithson, the work has both of them dying and descending into damnation in the final movement. With a free thematic employment therein of the medieval “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) chant, we in turn get the program’s thematic bond with the macabre. And with the rest of the program.
To wit, Michael Daugherty’s “Red Cape Tango” from his Metropolis Symphony served as the 15-minute opener. Ostensibly written as an homage to the Superman pop-icon in 1988, Daugherty (b. 1954) deliberately undertook this project 50 years after the blue-leotarded, red-caped superhero first appeared in Action Comics — in June 1938. When I think of the “Man of Steel,” I associate Jay Gruska’s romantic background music for the Lois and Clark TV series of the ’90s, the love theme from John Williams’ score for the late Christopher Reeves’ popular portrayal in the four Superman features from the ’70s and ’80s and film composer Marlin Skiles’ stirring contribution to the 1950 Columbia movie serial, Atom Man vs. Superman. On the contrary, I hear nothing of Superman in Daugherty’s piece — nor of Superman’s “hometown Metropolis.”
But ... the music certainly conjures a Halloween theme, written as a chaconne on “Dies Irae” — in tango rhythm yet — and is effective in that vein. Popular in the Baroque period, a chaconne is a set of multiple variations on a short motif. Using contemporary orchestral devices (all of them), Daugherty’s “Tango” sets us up for the program’s macabre element to continue (forget Superman).
And continue it does, with guest pianist William Wolfram delivering a dazzling display of virtuosity in Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death) for Piano and Orchestra. Like “Red Cape,” it consists of many variations on “Dies Irae.” Otherwise the piece, loud and boisterous, lacks much musical merit and withstands only infrequent hearings. Falletta’s well-honed orchestra and Wolfram’s uncompromised finger skills did deliver a certain thrill — albeit a cheap one.
The ISO last presented Symphonie Fantastique only two years ago, and its five movements benefited greatly from ISO guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s superlative honing of his large orchestra (two sets of timpani, two bass drums, multiple brass and percussion, etc.) into a precise, beautifully nuanced, perfectly balanced account. Falletta’s reading, though nicely rendering the middle movement, “In the Country” (her stated favorite), did not measure up. In the concluding “Dream of the Witches Sabbath,” Falletta tended to rush the numerous tour-de-force sections, getting occasional raggedness from her players. Why not retire this humongous warhorse for at least a few years?