Classical Music Review
ISO Classical Series Program No. 11
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Last weekend, a Chilean-born conductor offered an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program of American, Spanish and French music, producing a potpourri of orchestral styles. Maximiano Valdés made his first classical-series podium appearance, generally engaging the good-sized Circle audience with works of Harris, Falla and Saint-Saëns. Falla's concert suite from his ballet El amor brujo was, for me, the evening's high point while the audience responded best to Saint-Saëns' well known Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 ("Organ"). Roy Harris' life (1898-1979) was exactly contemporaneous with Aaron Copland's, and we hear Coplandesque allusions in Harris' Symphony No. 3 in One Movement (1937). Lasting about 20 minutes, the symphony is constructed in five connected sections. The composer's own description of them could hardly be more prosaic: "Section I: Tragic ... low string sonorities (hymn-like melody); Section II: Lyric: strings, horns and winds continue the moods of the first," etc. Hardly the visual metaphors we're so used to seeing - including from yours truly.
The piece is accessible enough that one wonders why the ISO's last performance of it happened way back in 1973, under Izler Solomon. I offer as conjecture that Harris' style and materials failed to connect with subsequent audiences sufficiently to endure (compare George Gershwin). The symphony, once hailed as "the greatest orchestral work yet written in America," is now scantly recorded (a good yardstick of any work's endurance). Valdés got a competent performance of it - clearly up to ISO standards - but I confess to being insufficiently moved to react to his interpretive nuances.
El amor brujo (Love the Magician) is another matter altogether. After a century and a half of playing second fiddle to its northern and eastern neighbors, Spain pulled itself into Europe's musical mainstream with the appearance of Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), who almost defined the "Spanish" sound.
Valdés clearly identifies with this music, pulling out a fiery performance, brilliant with splashy colors and subtle shadings that make you hear castanets even when there aren't any, from each of its 13 sections. Falla's harmonies and colors are as strongly Spanish as Ravel's are French, nowhere more than in Brujo's most popular excerpt - and Falla's best known piece, "Ritual Fire Dance," No. 8 of the 13. After the final "The Bells of Daybreak," I felt hung out and left to dry.
Camille Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony (1886) remains popular with concertgoers in spite of some music-community nay-saying. It has all the elements desired of a big, late Romantic symphony while throwing in a modest-but-telling use of organ and piano: a grim, dies irae-like motif binding the four movements, the motif's thematic transformation into a joyous chorale at the opening of the fourth, an ensuing masterly fugal section, a victorious climax - guaranteeing thunderous applause. I thought it a bit fatuous of Valdés to slightly denigrate the work in the pre-concert Words on Music when no one in that forum would dare remark against anything by Roy Harris. Perhaps that explains Valdés' more perfunctory performance of it when compared with Marin Alsop's electrifying reading here in 2002.