Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Classical Series Program No. 5
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Oct. 28-29 It can perhaps be viewed as a bit presumptuous to program Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1929 revision) next to George Gershwin's An American in Paris (1928). The former is a "great," serious, demanding work pushing the envelope in defining what modernism in music should be or might have been about. The Gershwin is, on the other hand, an enduringly popular favorite with audiences everywhere. Asking at this point which work is the greater is like - to grab an overused cliché - comparing apples and oranges.
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago programmed the Berg last weekend because he loves it and wishes to share his love with his audiences. As the gap-bridging figure of the Second Viennese School triumvirate of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, Berg somehow invested his new "originality" with enough of his stylistic legacy not only to render his "modernism" palatable but to make it moving and intense. And Venzago revealed that intensity with a carefully, thoroughly rehearsed performance.
Respectively entitled Präludium, Reigen and Marsch, Berg's three pieces are among the most perfectly orchestrated of any 20th century music I can recall: The huge player complement Venzago wielded on stage had each section highlighted in perfect balance as one musical moment seemingly grew out of the previous one - no waste, no obvious repetition.
It was difficult to shift gears for the concluding Gershwin after being enveloped by the Three Pieces. Gradually, however, Venzago pulled me into his orbit with an astonishingly successful - and wholly original - reading of American. His push-pull of tempos, though extreme even for him, seemed to bring out new elements in the piece that more constant pacing misses. ISO principal trumpeter Marvin Perry had his work cut out for him, and came through splendidly, introducing the famous "blues" theme in the third section, then doing the same for the "Charleston" in the fourth section. The work was a thundering crowd pleaser, some mistakenly applauding before it was over.
Venzago began his program with a Leopold Stokowski arrangement of a familiar tune from Bach's Cantata #140: "Wachet auf" ("Wake Up"). While the captivating melody works after a fashion in the cloying guise of a large, "Romantic" orchestral presentation, it is hardly Bach as he could have imagined it - and as we should not be required to.
Some real Bach came next, with guest pianist Arnaldo Cohen joining Venzago and a small string complement for the composer's Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056. Substituting a piano is often done for the Bach set of seven in this genre, and certainly worked with the keyboard control Cohen showed throughout. The same can be said of Cohen's playing of Richard Strauss' early-written Burlesque in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra: dazzlingly splendid pianism from someone in complete control. This season we get to compare Lang Lang with Cohen, who successfully replaced the young Chinese sensation two seasons ago when the latter had to cancel because of an injury.
Notwithstanding this consideration, it was Berg versus Gershwin which dominated the concert.