Hilbert Circle Theatre; Jan. 5-7
The first full January weekend was warm, and the Circle a bit more crowded than might have been expected. Was it the
weather or the three program choices which made the difference? For me, the
reappearance of guest conductor and Briton, Mark Wigglesworth, made a
significant difference and always has since his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
debut about a decade ago. This time, he was joined by Georgian (Republic of)
guest pianist Yefim Bronfman to end the program with Brahms' huge, granitic
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83. Preceding it were two other
repertoire favorites: Sibelius's "The Swan of Tuonela" from Four Legends of the Kalevalá. Op. 22 (1893) and Sir Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original
Theme ("Enigma," 1899).
Among the Finnish composer's most popular pieces, "The Swan"
is famous for its extended English horn solo, beautifully realized by ISO
acting principal Timothy Clinch. Moreover, Clinch
showed his easy conversational ability in the pre-concert Words on Music, in
discussing with host Michael Toulouse the challenges double-reed woodwind
players (i.e. oboe, English horn, bassoon, contrabassoon) have in their
constant battle with their own reed making - and its necessary frequency.
Wigglesworth's orchestra held its end of the bargain in conveying Sibelius's
wistful mood with finely shaped balance.
Elgar's most popular orchestral mainstay is a set of 14
variations on a theme which he maintains is elusive, or even "can't be heard" - hence, the "Enigma." Yet I read years ago, before realizing
it myself, that there appears throughout a very short motive which directly
borrows from the second theme of Mozart's Andante from his three-movement "Prague"
Symphony (No. 38 in D). I hear this repeated through the "Enigma's" half-hour
span. Could the composer's thematic reference have been that obvious, or was it
merely an accident, having nothing to do with Elgar's "theme"? We'll never
In any case, Elgar's variations are suggestive of his many
friends in upper British society - starting with his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar - to all of whom he attaches a short descriptive commentary. The ninth, or
"Nimrod," variation is the loveliest and perhaps most famous. But all 14,
including the flashy, triumphal coda showed our orchestra at its best,
Wigglesworth deserving much of the credit.
Brahms wrote two equally famous piano concertos, both at the
creative summit of his works for large forces. What is noteworthy about them is
that they were written 23 years apart: No. 1 in 1858, when Brahms was only 25, and No. 2 in 1881, around when he produced most of his
other mature symphonic output, including his four symphonies and his Violin
Concerto. Unusually, No. 2 contains four movements, with a scherzo inserted
between the opening and slow movements. The latter Andante, with its extended
cello solo writing, defining a captivating theme before the piano gets it, is
surely as beautiful as they come from the Romantic era.
As performances go, following the Sibelius and the Elgar,
this Brahms disappointed. Bronfman, although possessing a flashy, note-sure
technique, tended to smear his pianistic display with overpedaling, muddying
his textures and burying many of his leading lines. The orchestra surprisingly
seemed to follow suit, making each of the four movements sound like one, long,
uninterrupted phrase. Perry Scott's cello playing in the Andante was the
performance's brightest spot.