"ISO Classical Series Program No. 11

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Feb. 16-17

Of Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies, the first three are formative while the final three indicate mastery. This simplistic, commonly viewed canard doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Hans Graf gave a rather small Circle Theatre crowd last weekend a most revealing performance of the neurotic Russian composer’s five-movement Symphony No. 3 in D (“Polish”), Op. 29, named for its polonaise-rhythmed final movement. And what Graf revealed was that while the symphony as a whole is less than the sum of its parts, some of its parts are captivating indeed.

Take, for example, its second scherzo — movement no. 4: In the middle of it, the horn sustains a johnny-one-note on D over many measures while the various ensembles dance around it with miraculously beautiful color/harmony shifts. ISO hornists Robert Danforth and recently hired Julie Beckel (daughter of longtime principal trombonist James Beckel) took turns (on Friday) breathing and keeping that note going. That is the best of many delicious moments in the symphony, which is more balletic in nature than symphonic (Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was written concurrently).

At 44 minutes, No. 3 is long — perhaps too long, its first movement containing some bits of vapid, banal writing. But Graf (the Houston Symphony’s present music director) got the most out of those minutes in a very energized, nicely polished performance — as good a “Polish” as I can recall either from live or recorded sources.

Preceding the Tchaikovsky, young Russian guest pianist Kirill Gerstein joined Graf in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. By no means great Mendelssohn, Op. 25 is a piano-display piece, the orchestra having little musically to say. Gerstein’s technical command of this work’s formidable challenges impressed. But only in his solo encore, Schubert’s Op. 90 G-flat Impromptu, did he reveal solid musicianship as well.

The program began with far better Mendelssohn: his little performed Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusine) Overture, Op. 32. The piece features an undulating figure right from Wagner’s Rhine-maiden motif heard in his Ring opera cycle. Trouble is, The Fair Melusine preceded the latter by well over a decade. One of three programmatic concert overtures dealing with the sea, Melusine is Mendelssohn’s least known, yet just as strong musically, which Graf demonstrated in his estimable performance.

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