No matter what he plays, André Watts draws in the patrons like a magnet. Nor did it hurt that he chose that mighty monolith of a piano concerto, Brahms' No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83, to open the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's ninth classical program. ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański was on the podium, also to follow the Brahms with Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, making for two big concert warhorses to attract a nearly packed house.
As Brahms reportedly told his dear friend Clara Schumann, he had written "a tiny concerto with a tiny wisp of a scherzo." The statement couldn't have been more ironic as his B-flat Concerto runs 50 minutes, has four movements instead of the usual three, and is surely the longest of that genre in the standard repertoire. It is also possibly the most magnificent, given its size and wealth of melodic invention within a masterfully crafted tapestry.
Now 67, Watts has been a top-tier pianist all his life and continues to show his special abilities as a keyboard giant. From Brahms' opening (Star Wars-like) theme through three movements to the jaunty, Hungarian-like finale, Watts and the orchestra played as a unified ensemble, equally strong in their musical content. Hovering over his keyboard, Watts produced an exquisite control of dynamics and an exquisitely sounding filigree of passage work, chords, trills and scale-work, though he may have leaned a little more heavily than usual on the damper pedal for the latter. Still, his mastery at virtuosic playing remains intact.
A surprise entry into this Brahms was cellist See-Do Park, who is auditioning for the long vacated ISO principal cellist position (to replace Arkady Orlovsky, who left several years ago). She dominated in the concerto's third movement with its beautifully extended cello solo. Her playing was such that she'd be an excellent addition to the ISO's principal player roster. During the extended applause afterward, Watts acknowledged her by walking over to her and clasping her hand at two different times. As it was, the audience clamored for Watts to provide an encore which, in this case, it didn't get.
Dvořák's nine symphonies are dominated by his last three, the Ninth being, of course, the famed "New World" Symphony, written in New York. The Seventh is carving out a strong repertoire niche of its own, however. Filled with dramatic Bohemian ardor, it nonetheless carries a strongly Brahmsian element in its harmonic structure, and was a fitting companion piece to fill out the program.
Urbański had his orchestra playing with largely excellent precision throughout the four movements. He wove his way through the Scherzo, giving it a seamless lilt. The Finale is a daunting movement for a conductor, with a plethora of rhythm changes, syncopations, off-the-beat accents. We heard very few misses in this complex-but-masterful structure, suddenly switching to D major at the ending cadence after being dominated by D minor within the movement. Feb. 20 - 22; Hilbert Circle Theatre