Wagner, Brahms and Bell 

ISO Classical Series Program: the last
Hilbert Circle Theatre
June 7-9

The 20th and final concert program of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 2006-’07 classical series should, in all respects, have produced a triumphal close. First of all, the Thursday morning Coffee Concert plus the Friday-Saturday evening concerts were completely sold “to the rafters,” as an ISO spokesperson put it. ISO music director Mario Venzago contributed more than his share. A Wagner/Brahms program gave the audience an ample dose of the familiar. But the clincher had to be world-renowned Hoosier-native/IU-trained violinist Joshua Bell. I’ll save him for last.

With the Prelude to Act 1 of his opera Tristan und Isolde in 1859, Richard Wagner defined a new epoch of music making: tonal music that keeps reaching for a home key and never quite finding it. Opening with the famous “Tristan” chord, the Prelude progresses toward an unresolved climax that beautifully depicts the unconsummated longing between the opera’s medieval title characters. In the familiar excerpt with which Venzago began the program, Wagner joins his Prelude with the “Liebestod” (love death): the final moments of the opera, skipping some five hours in between. Here Isolde sings of her love for her already lifeless Tristan about to be consummated in both their deaths (the 19th century loved that heavy, symbolic stuff). And in doing so, she “finds” a home key (B major, as it happens), and all is resolved.

Venzago’s reading of the Tristan Prelude and “Liebestod” (with the soprano omitted) showed an acute affinity for the composer’s obsession with love, death and sex while, at once, catching his players up in a seamless delivery and achieving a final, convincing ecstasy. It was one of Venzago’s better performances.

Our maestro continued with Wagner’s Overture to his earlier opera, Tannhäuser (1845), and I was frankly disappointed. The program had billed the Tannhäuser Overture and “Venusberg” Music — a concatenation of Wagner’s 1845 Overture with the extended bacchanalian ballet that opens his 1861 “Paris” revision of the opera. Playing the billed program would have revealed the striking transition between Wagner’s earlier and his post-Tristan styles, making a better allusion to the preceding piece and giving us more mature Wagner. But we got only the original Overture, a generally good performance at that. Aside from an abrupt, unexpected speed-up beginning the two “Hymn to Venus” sections, Venzago quickly recovered his excellent control of his players’ inflections each time.

With great violin playing, that tired old chestnut, the Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1878), can spring to life once again and rekindle our response to its lyrico-dramatic beauties. Several years ago Gil Shaham gave us such a performance. Last weekend Joshua Bell regrettably did not. Oh, his technical prowess and mature musicality deserving of his marquee status were there in abundance. But his tone — from his 1713 Strad — was thin, insipid and frequently too soft. He failed to strike sparks with his playing, his virtuosic display all too often subsumed within the strings in back of him. The effect mimicked a pianist overpedaling. Bell put too little energy into producing an acceptable vibrato; his fingerboard hand (left) rested more than it should have, while his bow hand did all the work. However, Venzago and his players more than held up their end of the bargain. And Roger Roe’s oboe solo opening the Adagio movement was excellent.

As I recall this 20-concert ISO season, there are several “bests” worthy of mention: best conducting: Venzago’s reading of Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben, with his Sibelius Seventh Symphony close behind; best solo pianist: André Watts’ performance of Brahms’ big B-flat Concerto; best vocalist: soprano Nicole Cabell singing opera arias; and finally … most mesmerizing soloist: violinist Hilary Hahn playing the Sibelius Concerto. See you next season for more of these.

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Tom Aldridge

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