Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Classical Series Program No. 17
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Give 'em the Ninth, and they will come. They came in droves, packing the Circle as tightly as I've seen all season. Indianapolis symphony orchestra music director Mario Venzago gave his first Indianapolis performance of one of the greatest of Western cultural icons now claimed by the world: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ("Choral"). Using voices for the first time in the symphonic genre's history, Beethoven also wrought as dense a symphonic structure as anyone ever has. Its intricacies need to be penetrated and revealed for full listener response - besides the final movement's most familiar "Ode to Joy" chorale.
Sherrill Milnes made his first Indy appearance last weekend with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Venzago chose a novel prelude to the Ninth in his program's short first half: The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir warmed up with Bach's fragmentary Cantata No. 50, "Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft," named for its short, single selection. It was over before one could begin to enjoy it.
Next came Leopold Stokowski's short take on Bach's quite familiar chorale, "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Stokie (as he was called) was famous for stoking up Bach to be "realized" by full-sized modern orchestras, pouring in all the opulence he could muster. Bach surely would not have recognized "A Mighty Fortress" with Stokie's treatment - starting softly in the lower strings, adding the winds and building to climactic proportions with the full brasses. Venzago took it at a dirge-like tempo.
Another Bach-Stokowski followed: the "Little" Fugue in G Minor, which starts in the winds with a prominent English horn at a jaunty clip, then builds to full orchestra. In other words, it starts like Bach and ends like Stokie.
One of the great Met baritones for decades, Sherrill Milnes, making his first Indy appearance, narrated Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), featuring the ISC Men's Chorus. A heartfelt recollection of the Jewish/Austrian composer's Holocaust experiences - cast in the composer's 12-tone, serial idiom - the brief work put us into an abyss from which the Ninth would deliver us, making an effective pre-intermission piece.
The Beethoven Ninth's first movement, the greatest symphonic opener in history, is marked Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (loosely: "Fast but not too fast, with a little majesty"). The "majestic" parts should be ever-so-slightly drawn back in tempo, while the softer parts, carrying the most intricate material, should move at a good clip. Venzago's tempo for the latter worked well, but he sped up the loud sections, rather than "admitting" their majesty. Furthermore, the orchestra's execution lacked the precision this multilayered writing needs, and which Venzago has realized with other musically weighty works (e.g. Mozart's "Prague" Symphony).
The Scherzo, though electrifying in pace, suffered from a similar imprecision while the serene Adagio, also taken at a faster-than-usual clip, worked well, with Venzago's nuances effectively wrought.
In the choral Finale, the vocal quartet sang beautifully together, notably in their E major cantabile section just before the coda. Of these soloists, Mark Uhlemann delivered his opening bass recitative the best I've heard locally. And the ISC choristers, under director Eric Stark, more than held their own through the "Ode to Joy" sections, but especially in their recitatives following the "Turkish" section and orchestral fugue.
Venzago brought us a new, lively approach to the Ninth. It just needs to be perfected.