Review: Joana Carneiro at the ISO

Music director of California’s Berkley Symphony, Joana Carneiro, guest conducted with the ISO last weekend.

4 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Jan. 28-29.

Having a female guest on the podium is a rare enough event for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; a good one has historically been rarer yet - mainly because there are so few. Portuguese conductor and presently music director of California's Berkley Symphony, Joana Carneiro, 34, conducts with the exuberance that she presents in an interview. Speaking in rapid, near perfect English, Carneiro more than delighted Geoffery Lapin's Words-on-Music audience an hour before the concert. She continued to do so for the general audience after mounting the podium.

Accompanied by guest soloist Alexander Toradze, 58, an expatriate of Soviet Georgia and long in residence at the IU South Bend campus, Carneiro gave us a both dazzling and yearning account of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1921). Known for his heavily nuanced interpretive prowess, Toradze seemingly revealed the Russian/Soviet composer's soul, flexing this most popular of his five piano concertos to the nth degree, but never betraying its spirit.

He made the piano part at once articulate and expressive, whether in the flashy, outer-movement passages or the plaintive, wistful line in the Andantino movement, with those occasional up-sweeping figurations. The concerto's final phrases are among the most inspired of any virtuoso display in the genre; Toradze, Carneiro and the players swept the audience members en masse to their feet in one of the most deserved, extended ovations I've witnessed here. A five-star performance.

Though Carneiro's other two readings didn't quite reach the level of the Prokofiev, her concluding Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 conveyed a goodly measure of excitement. The tempos of each of Beethoven's immortal Nine have, in revisionist history, been notably sped up from a half century ago, especially the Seventh.

With large, sweeping baton gestures, Carneiro moved her players through the Bonn master's heavily rhythmic four movements with good precision and strong momentum. However, in the final Allegro con brio movement (which, for some reason, the program booklet failed to list), the violin figurations defining the movement's theme were mostly buried under the brass's rhythmic pulsations, rendering them all but inaudible. While one's mind can often supply what one can't quite hear, it is clearly better to have a balanced ensemble. This was Carneiro's only failing in an otherwise laudable account.

The program opened with a less-than-ten minute new piece, Private Alleles, by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela (b. 1974). Programmatically, it purportedly has to do with the genetic variations within Mexican populations caused by varying blends of European, American Indian and African ancestors which have produced the "Mestizo" sub-race comprising 80% of today's Mexicans. While representational music is, at its best, difficult to transmute its program from composer to listening public, something as abstract as genetic variations seems impossible to have any musical counterpart - even if you carefully read the composer's program notes and try to "believe." Except for some sparkling use of percussion, the piece did little to raise my spirits - and nothing for my appreciation of genetics.

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