The Hilbert Circle Theatre was filled: packed last Friday up to its nosebleed mezzanine corners. Those masses didn’t come to hear two Verdi operatic excerpts, though they were well-performed. They weren’t drawn by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s guest pianist Jean-Louis Steuerman playing Stravinsky, though he was excellent. No, they came to hear and feel the power of the world’s most popular symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth.
In this second concert of his first mid-winter festival — an homage to Beethoven — ISO music director Mario Venzago came, he conducted, he conquered. But from a single half-hour symphony you can’t a concert make. So let’s start with the warm-up fare.
-ISO music director Mario Venzago — and company — saw a packed house last Friday night.- Giuseppe Verdi’s ballet music, “Le Ballet de la Reine” from the second act of his longest opera, Don Carlos (1867), began the program: a richly orchestrated, multi-sectioned piece of fluff. Excepting the lusher sound, the piece hearkens back to the simple harmonies of early middle-period Verdi — his characteristic piccolo riding on top of the musical fabric. With prominent violin, clarinet and brass solos, Venzago revealed all the music’s facets, while also reminding many that Verdi later demonstrated great musical profundity with an orchestra. He just didn’t here.
With the following Overture to La forza del destino (1869), Venzago moved into more familiar Verdi territory. Here we have an excellent compilation of the 1862 opera’s themes, a good coupling of dramatic urgency, a heroic conclusion and thus a foreshadowing of the Beethoven-to-come. Using perhaps a bit more seamless phrasing, Venzago’s reading flatteringly reminded me of Arturo Toscanini’s recordings of the overture — the late Italian Maestro being one of our music director’s (and my) “conducting idols.”
Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is a product of 1924, with a large wind complement, including horns and brass — plus five string basses — gathered in a semicircle around Venzago and Steuerman. Cast in three short movements, the work is “classic” neo-classic Stravinsky, which means rhythmic, cool, detached, unemotional — but skillfully wrought. Steuerman faultlessly delivered all those lean, complex, Baroque-like keyboard motor rhythms, with all those winds effectively backing him up.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 has held the boards as the symphony paragon from its 1808 world premiere to the present. Venzago’s account sped up the pace over more traditional tempos, the effect being all to the good, including the timpani being more prominent than in typical performances.