Review: ISO Classical Series Program No. 4

Jonathan Biss played with the ISO this past weekend.

3.5 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Oct. 14-15.

Gilbert Varga is always welcome as an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor. He's one of the few on the tour who gets the best from our players. On Friday, Varga went from Classical to Modern in a program featuring Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók. Jonathan Biss joined Varga in Beethoven's light-veined but engaging Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 19 (1798).

Actually the first written of the composer's numbered concertos, Op. 19 is thinly orchestrated, leaving out the clarinets, trumpets and timpani usually included by then, and lacking the lyrico-dramatic power of Mozart's finest in the genre. But the piano writing shows an all-but-mature Beethoven, and Biss showed a mature handling of its passage, scale and octave work. Though he plays with a minimum of nuance, his legato showing little variation, Biss demonstrated an absolute mastery of the notes. He greatly impressed with his handling of the lengthy first-movement cadenza, which Beethoven wrote more than a decade later. He also collaborated well with Varga and his players.

Varga began with Mozart's The Magic Flute Overture, K. 620, ironically written for the largest orchestra he ever used for a concert piece. With two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and a sizeable string complement, the Circle stage was quite full for a Mozart offering, dwarfing the Beethoven to follow. (Beethoven used trombones only in his Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies.)

Following the stately, solemn introduction, Varga had his strings cascading through the fugal Allegro and bringing up the full orchestra in perfect cadence. The flute-trombone fanfare, opening the development section, was nicely rendered and quotes directly from the opera.

Two works of Varga's fellow Hungarian, Béla Bartók, occupied the second half, the first his early, rather unknown Deux Portraits, Op. 5 (1911). The first "Portrait" used ISO guest concertmaster Alex Kerr as the solo violinist, and the second -- didn't. The two sections were meant as an homage to the composer's concurrent love interest, Stefi Geyer. Except that the final version of the second Portrait emerged after Geyer broke off the relationship, much to Bartók's strong regret.

So that he rendered the first one soft and lyric, with Kerr providing good solo work, along with very pastel harmonies suggestive of the composer still searching for his mature style. The second one is boisterous, clangy, discordant, and loud, indicative of the couple's breakup. Neither section is well-put-together enough to make much musical sense; it's one of those obscure works of famous composers that programmers like to insert now and then to "fill out" the repertoire.

Not so with Bartók's concluding Suite from his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1919), perhaps his most colorful work for orchestra. Here he has found his unique, modernist style, yet more adventuresome than his later works so often performed: e.g. the Second Violin Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra. The Mandarin's composition accompanies a story line involving three vagabonds who act as pimps for a girl they force into hooking. The first two johns have no money and are rejected, whereas the third is a curious Mandarin. The pimps assault him with a sword and take his money, but he seemingly cannot be killed -- that is, until the girl embraces him.

Varga's command of the orchestral backdrop to this frightful tale was complete, with all the instrumental ensembles taking their turn highlighting its depiction.