An anomalous pairing


ISO Classical Series

Program No. 12

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Feb. 21-23

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 12th classical program featured Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto followed by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. It made for a most interesting coupling: the finest of Beethoven’s concertos for any solo instrument against Tchaikovsky’s symphonic masterpiece — a program to anticipate with high expectations. Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, 21, the Beethoven soloist, was nothing short of spectacular. With our music director Mario Venzago returning to the podium, the Tchaikovsky was not.

Up to last weekend, Venzago had never, in his life, publicly performed any of the Tchaikovsky symphonies — surely an anomaly among conductors of his stature and experience. What failed to work this time was his taking the soft, lyric passages slowly and the loud, climactic ones too fast, by comparison. The first movement’s development, which explodes like a firecracker, started racing away from the symphony’s well-known signature theme, which Venzago had slowed to a near stop.

In the third movement, the famous scherzo/march, he started with a nimble but appropriate pace. But at the full-orchestra return of the march, Venzago began accelerating the tempo all the way to its jubilantly martial conclusion, an interesting approach that might have worked if his players could have kept up with him. But the faster he went, the more ragged they played. Still, he got the expected third movement applause, a reaction completely concomitant with the “Pathétique” over its playing history. Venzago even took a short bow.

Having panned the fast, loud passages, I must say that Venzago’s soft ones were mostly beautiful, exquisite and haunting, nowhere more so than in the Adagio lamentoso finale, the first symphony to end in despairing silence — the bass strings sawing their way into nothingness while principal bassist Ju Fang Liu plucked hers. Someone regrettably started the applause prematurely while Venzago was still “in the moment,” having not dropped his arm. That put the final stamp on a “Pathétique” that has seen better performances.

What a contrast with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58! Yuja Wang represents yet another Asian pianist with both extraordinary technique and seemingly innate musicality, both of which made Op. 58 sing with a lyric glow while fully revealing pianistic pyrotechnics that go beyond Mozart. Wang’s dynamic clarity at all levels was awesome. My only caveat was that she tended to punch the principal line with too much intensity; yet all her softer passages cascaded like pearls. Venzago deserves credit for balancing his forces to allow them, and Wang, to be heard equally. The young pianist then solo encored with Mozart’s Rondo “Alla Turca” from his Piano Sonata in A, K. 331, in a dazzlingly difficult arrangement by 35-year-old Russian pianist Arkady Volodos.

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