ISO Classical Series Final Program
Hilbert Circle Theatre
At the end, they stood and applauded ... and applauded. The ample Friday Circle Theatre audience gave a ringing endorsement to the conclusion of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago’s first four-year contract and his signing of a new one — as announced by ISO President Simon Crookall before the music started. They also applauded the end of a most enjoyable 21-concert season, the last one for the present (next season’s classical series scales back to 20 concerts). But mostly, Venzago’s exciting account of a final repertoire standard, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, enraptured those in attendance.
This was an evening of standards, the single remaining composer represented being Robert Schumann. Venzago opened his program with a piece not heard here since 1974: Schumann’s melodramatic Manfred Overture in E-flat Minor, Op. 115, a musical setting of George Gordon Lord Byron’s poetic drama. The overture’s long absence from the ISO repertoire is inexplicable considering that another great composer’s setting of the Byron piece, Tchaikovsky’s four-movement Manfred Symphony, has not only been programmed many times in the interim, but commercially recorded here twice — a half century apart (Fabien Sevitzky’s 78 rpm album in the ’40s and Raymond Leppard’s CD in the ’90s). The Schumann, a minor masterpiece, deserves more attention, especially with the seamless rendering Venzago gives it.
Filled with the vividly thematic yearnings of Lord Byron’s tragic anti-hero, the Schumann overture arrests immediately for its longing melancholy, by its perverse insistence on staying in the minor mode throughout. Its surprisingly Mendelssohnian cast (Mendelssohn and Schumann were exact contemporaries) gives us a partially concealed sweetness while betraying an unexpected union of these two composers — offering the best of each. Venzago wove his way through the music’s Byronic entrails, pausing here, speeding up there, consummately shaping throughout. It was the most moving 10 minutes of the evening.
Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129, followed Manfred and featured guest cellist Alban Gerhardt. A native of Berlin and resembling our own Joshua Bell — in age, build and hair style — Gerhardt produced unusually velvet-like tones on his instrument. Furthermore, the sound he wrought — employing a thin, well-centered vibrato — proved the best part of listening to the concerto, one whose discursiveness I’ve never been able to get past.
Brahms’ First Symphony, a product of his 44th year (1876), took decades gestating because of his Beethoven obsession: being able to follow the Master adequately. Once No. 1 was completed, Brahms wrote his remaining three symphonies in rather short order. Though Venzago continues to speed up the loud sections and slow the soft ones, the orchestra in this case followed his muse to the nines. Once again, the symphony’s beauties and drama were laid out for us. And, without pausing for breath, our ISO players begin the summer Symphony on the Prairie series this weekend — while Venzago takes on engagements elsewhere.