"ISO Classical Series Program No. 9
Hilbert Circle Theatre
With no connection or overriding theme tying the three works offered in last weekend’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program, Mario Venzago proved that one isn’t needed. The ISO music director began with an unknown Stravinsky work, continued with a virtuosic Saint-Saëns concerto and ended with another pick for the ongoing Midwinter Beethoven Festival — his Seventh Symphony. Perhaps one could cite technical difficulty as the one common denominator for the program; none of these pieces are easy to play.
Take, for example, Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. Frequent British guest soloist Stephen Hough (pronounced “Huff”) reappeared and pounced on the work with the voraciousness of a feline on its prey. He intros the work with a solo: a very Lisztian cadenza. The full orchestra then chimes in with a Don Giovanni-like pair of chords. Hough, Venzago and the orchestra remain in full control, Hough’s fingers rolling up and down the piano’s compass like breakers beaching themselves from a rough sea. The movement is short, coming to an end before it offers much more than mere display.
The captivating Scherzo that follows is another story. Perhaps the most intriguing single movement from the five Saint-Saëns piano-concerto panoply, the movement is a rhythmic delight, hearkening more to Mendelssohn than Liszt (which is all to the good). All its nimbleness, its rhythmic vitality, its fleet passage work came through to us in a manner where the notes are the display, which in turn makes the music. Hough then takes the composer’s Presto Finale fast enough to do little more than show off his continuingly impressive technical prowess. With a bit of over-pedaling, Hough exhibited the work without penetrating it. He’s done better in past ISO appearances.
Venzago opened his program with Stravinsky’s Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), an orchestral “poem” he extracted from his 1914 opera Le rossignol. Cast in Stravinsky’s preceding Firebird/Pétrouchka/ Rite of Spring style, its four connected sections don’t quite gel with the inevitability of those three ballet masterpieces. In fact, Venzago himself seemed to give it somewhat muted praise in a short talk before conducting it. Yet it remains interesting for its daring use, given its early date, of modern orchestral color, predominating in this case over a rhythmic pulse. Venzago’s very large player complement gave it full justice, including acting concertmaster Philip Palermo’s use of his G string (the lowest of the violin’s four) to penetrate, at one point, the stratospheric regions of pitch.
Rhythmic drive is the hallmark of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. In fact, rhythm and harmony form the essence of this great symphony, producing yet another unique extension of the formal structural boundaries the composer first proclaimed in his Third Symphony (“Eroica”). Venzago once again showed an excellent command of the work’s rhythmic thrust, and his orchestra followed suit in a riveting performance. The ISO’s Beethoven festival ends this coming weekend, featuring two final works of the Bonn master. n