ISO Classical Series Program No. 14
Hilbert Circle Theatre
March 3-4 Karina Gauvin performed with the ISO last weekend. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago often goes for unusual, unexpected programming combinations. Last weekend’s coupling of Johann Sebastian Bach with Anton Bruckner seemed, on its face, to fit that bill.
The German Baroque master, considered by many the greatest composer who ever lived, preceded the Austrian Romantic, considered the greatest composer who ever lived only by a clique of ardent devotees who, like religious zealots, are eager to spread his gospel when and where they can. And, once again, Venzago pulled a musical rabbit out of his hat in putting together Bach’s short Cantata No. 51, Jauchzert Gott in allen Landen! (Praise ye God throughout Creation!), with Bruckner’s very long Symphony No. 7 in E (1883).
For one thing, all Bruckner’s mature symphonies are Baroquish sounding — in one special way: Their lines and harmonies slide past like monstrously swollen Baroque organ works, with the strings, a normal wind complement and a greatly expanded brass section giving us a sense of organ pipes. Further, there is little percussion to intrude on the special sonic signature of a composer who departed from Romantic music’s mainstream, established his own tributary and left no followers. (Please don’t count Mahler: He’s very much mainstream and certainly did leave followers.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Bach featured Canadian guest soprano Karina Gauvin and ISO principal trumpeter Marvin Perry. Perry was prominent in a 19-player instrumental group also employing one bassoonist and an organist (playing a small, “positif” instrument), along with the usual strings. Featuring three arias and one recitative, Cantata No. 51 challenges any singer to the utmost. Gauvin was required to quickly sound many notes in the highest registers with athletic prowess. In this effort she proved exemplary.
However, her verse diction went largely unheard, the words undifferentiated — from the front row of the mezzanine’s Dress Circle anyway. The on-stage acoustics contributed largely to Gauvin’s inaudibility: With such a small player complement, the reverberation level was simply too high for clear articulation. Fortunately we could follow the verses (sung in German) and their translation in our program booklets.
Apart from her diction, Gauvin has an opulent voice, one which knows its way around this repertoire quite amply. Venzago’s little chamber ensemble gave us as crisply incisive a reading as one could glean from the reverberant sound, and — in the bargain — produced another Bach miracle.
If I have to sit through any Bruckner symphony of the (numbered) nine he wrote, I would always choose the seventh. At this point in his career, the bumbling, countrified, half-witted, God and Wagner worshipping (in that order) savant had reached his full-blown archetypal style. And Venzago, perhaps with the help of guest concertmaster Angela Fuller — a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra and up for consideration as Hidetaro Suzuki’s replacement — gave his strings a special luster. This rendered the “master’s” seemingly disconnected phrases and melodic fragments into a more coherent whole than I can recall previously sensing.
Of course, the winds furnished their exquisitely unique Brucknerian timbres. And the brass — with four Wagner “tuben” (special horns Wagner used in his Ring operas) added to the usual trombones, trumpets, tuba and five French horns — belted out more harmonies and fewer of those dolorous unisons than in Bruckner’s other eight.
The slow movement, perhaps the composer’s best in the genre, sounds quite Wagnerian. It actually has an identifiable, plaintive motif which keeps reappearing out of the orchestral fabric. Then there is the big climactic moment in which percussionist Paul Berns gets to slap two cymbals together just once, along with a struck triangle. Both were inaudible within the din of brass, but we could sure see them. And the timpanist, whose drumsticks lay fallow for some 25 minutes of preceding material, finally got to earn his pay, and continued to do so for the ensuing Scherzo.
Venzago did his best for a composer he unabashedly loves. And that “best” was very good indeed.