By age 31, most major composers are just finding their “legs”: defining their style and beginning to write with a semblance of maturity. Viennese-born Franz Peter Schubert died at that age in 1828 — a year after Beethoven, leaving a legacy of some 965 catalogued, dated compositions (the work of Otto Erich Deutsch), over 600 of which were songs.
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago began his orchestra’s 21-program classical subscription series with an homage to this short, plump, bespectacled Austrian, who died of syphilis and led, by all accounts, a miserable life. With the Hilbert Circle Theatre regrettably only half filled last Saturday evening, our maestro opened his program with a fleet account of the lightest of Schubert fare, his Overture in D, D.556. One of several “in the Italian style,” this one also apes Rossini, whose operas had concurrently (1816) made him Vienna’s darling.
ISO principal trombonist and composer James Beckel’s Fantasy after Schubert then had its debut performance, and, unlike most music premieres, this one deserves noteworthiness. Beckel incorporates themes from Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, plus a prominent one from the composer’s “Great” C Major Symphony (in C major yet), into a most engaging display of contemporary sonic splendor. His employment of the 12-tone row as rapid filigree overlaying a basically tonal (F major) idiom makes the best use of that generally unloved serialist device that I’ve heard to date. Beckel’s 10-minute Fantasy deserves to join the new-music repertoire and stay there.
Schubert never wrote a concerto, but his four-movement Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano, D.760, provided excellent fodder for Liszt to make a piano concerto of it a few decades later — in plenty of time for the ISO to give it a first performance. Moscow-born pianist Anastasia Voltchok joined the orchestra in producing well-shaped lyric sections — the haunting, slow movement theme, for example. But she was absolutely covered by the orchestra in the splashy concluding section, perhaps partly due to Liszt’s muddy orchestration. Voltchok deserves another local hearing with a different work.
The two-movement Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D.759 (“Unfinished”) sits as a sublime pinnacle in Western music — a perfect fusion of symphony and song, of drama and lyricism, of form and content. Its musical density — hauntingly, searingly, compactly intense — ironically has been underappreciated for its easy popularity. Venzago called attention to its greatness in two ways: He took a taut, up-tempo, emphasizing the drama as well as the bewitching melodies. And he added Brian Newbould’s “completion” of the work: a Scherzo Schubert left only in piano score and the B-minor Entr’acte from his Rosamunde ballet music, which many feel the composer originally intended to end the symphony. Into which Venzago deftly inserted a quote from the symphony’s opening movement — which has an existing precedent in Schubert’s “Posthumous” A Major Piano Sonata, D.959.
Venzago wholly revealed the unassailable sublimity of the symphony’s two familiar movements while providing us with two additional mature-and-worthy ones we otherwise would never get to hear. This was a concert to remember.