Review: Classical Series No. 13 at the ISO

Guest conductor Robert Spano, current music director at the Atlanta Symphony, was like a great chef, incorporating the right ingredients.

3.5 stars

ISO Classical Series Program No. 13;

Hilbert Circle Theatre; March 18-19

With the local debut of Einojuhani

Rautavaara’s (b. 1928) Incantations for Solo Percussion

and Orchestra (2009), the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra once again

brought in master percussionist Colin Currie to manage a more modest

front-stage phalanx of struck instruments than he has in past

appearances. Mainly alternating between vibraphone and marimba,

Currie dominates the orchestra as it supports him in many tonally

harmonic intervals, providing a touch of minimalism in its repetitive


The 82-year-old Finnish composer,

viewed as the most popular successor to Jean Sibelius, gives us an

agreeable, likable, three-movement work inspired by the singing and

dancing of Arctic shamans — on which you’ll have to take

Rautavaara at his word.

On his two mallet instruments, Currie

sometimes uses one stick per hand and sometimes two, moving rapidly

between the instruments without missing an “assignment.”

All in all, it was an enjoyable musical experience, led by the

current music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Robert Spano.

Prior to the concerto, Spano opened

with Sibelius’ most popular chestnut, Finlandia, Op. 26

(1999). Everybody knows it — or at least the patriotic hymn

tune the composer introduces, it having since been incorporated into

many Protestant hymnals and often titled “Be Still my Soul.”

Spano, yet another excellent guest

conductor within the current panoply of those seemingly appearing

here week after week, measured out the piece’s recipe like a

great chef, incorporating the right ingredients in the right amounts

at the right time. This was a Finlandia anybody could savor.

The program’s second half offered

the two most popular orchestral works of Ottorino Respighi

(1879-1936), The Fountains of Rome (1916), followed by The

Pines of Rome (1924). While Fountains starts and ends

softly, Pines begins loudly in the high treble and ends thunderously

with a tumultuous, ovation-prompting cadence. Both works have four

sections, each depicting its own set of fountains or pines found

within the “eternal city,” bringing about abrupt mood

changes in both sets of transitions.

Though both works are instrumented

beautifully with a similar style — each employing a large,

post-Romantic orchestra, it is Pines which appears the more

grandiose and ear-catching. For example, we hear a recorded

nightingale making its lovely call toward the end of Part 3, “The

Pines of the Janiculum,” which the composer called for in the

early days of recording and which surely must sound more lifelike in

present day (I thought, for a moment, there was a trained bird


Respighi also scored six additional

brass for the final “Pines of the Appian Way,” which

players Spano placed on the upper stage in back of the other forces,

to add to its depiction of Roman soldiers solemnly marching in

“numberless steps.”

To undergird the sonic effect, Respighi

also called for an organ’s low B-flat pedal point to begin a

few measures into the section, to depict the ground quaking under the

endless army’s boots — and vibrating the audience’s

knee-caps. Where was it? Even though the ISO now owns a massive

Wurlitzer theater organ, and I was told that it can be used from

backstage — powered up to sound that B-flat, there was no organ

used that evening (Friday).

In past performances of Pines,

the ISO has sometimes used an electronic organ to fill the hall with

that incredible bass — and sometimes not. Now that we have our

own, and a real one (complete with pipes) at that, there’s no

credible excuse for not using it, especially as there are so few

classical repertoire pieces calling for it.

Aside from that bit of carping, I felt

Spano’s account of both Respighi works showed that his high

standards remain unabated.