Hilbert Circle Theatre, Oct. 23-24.
At last! After nearly two years of hearing about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "brand-new" theater organ's installation being "in process," and anticipating the scheduled programming of the Saint-Saëns "Organ" Symphony (No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78) a year ago, organ restorer Carlton Smith found he needed an extra year to complete this most arduous task. But now it's done, and the 1931 Wurlitzer from the Warner Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio, had its inaugural last weekend - with the Saint-Saëns also held back an extra year. The organ was not only restored but augmented with enough extra stops to simulate almost any musical timbre through its 1,000 plus pipes. These - which the audience will never see - are located in back of the glass and curtained panels above the two side-box seats (where the long-since-removed "original" Circle Theatre organ had them).
Guest conductor Thierry Fischer had his orchestra in perfect balance with the organ's introduction in the symphony's Poco adagio section of its first movement, organist Martin Ellis (of the N. United Methodist Church) using mainly soft pedal tones. Some of these thrust into the hall the deepest bass I've heard there. But when opening the second movement's Maestoso section with a huge, C-major chord, I was overwhelmed with the purely sonic elements of the instrument, coupling with this hall as no on stage orchestra ever has. It's moveable, cream-colored console with three manuals, along with the predictably art deco-ish style, was located upstage and in the left corner (as viewed by the audience).
Hearing the organ last Friday, while anticipating hearing it in future works, examples being Respighi's The Pines of Rome, Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, makes me realize the dimension it adds to ISO programming - both classical and pops - the latter where its "theatrical stops" will come much more into play. Experiencing the Saint-Saëns, though impressive enough on its own, barely hints at what the instrument is capable of - what all those "other" pipes can do.
It is unfortunate that Thierry failed largely to get in sync with his players or that he allowed them to fail getting in sync with one another throughout the program. Their lack of precision began with the opener: Stravinsky's beautifully crafted but emotionless Symphony in Three Movements, finished at the end of WWII during the height of his neo-classical period. Though hearkening back to his three early ballet scores - Firebird, Pétrouchka and The Rite of Spring - in terms of harmony and rhythm, this work lacks the "soul" that made the those early works constants in the pantheon of repertoire concert music. Thierry's orchestra just barely managed to keep those uniformly paced, rhythmic thrusts together in the two outer movements, even taking a moderate tempo. Whereas the slow movement's bit-of-nostalgia came through better.
Pianist Stewart Goodyear provided the concert's other highlight, showing his astonishing pianism in Ravel's late-written Piano Concerto No. 2 in G (1931), with its bluesy nod to George Gershwin. Taking it at as fast a pace as I've heard it, Goodyear's fingers flew while shaping his passage work effortlessly (no slips here) over the entire keyboard in movements 1 and 3, while equally shaping the slow movement, lovely in its contrasting simplicity, into a vehicle of extreme expressiveness. Regrettably, the orchestra failed to handle the fast tempos well at all. One got the feeling its players were gallantly trying to keep up, and not quite making it. Once again, the slow movement came off the best.
As for the Saint-Saëns, its principal motive - resembling the "Dies Irae" plain-chant with added chromaticism (half-steps) - requires the strings to do rapid note repeats which admittedly are quite difficult to play crisply and together. Thierry's excessively fast tempo compounded the problem - once again in the fast sections of this four-section, two-movement work. If the conductor had backed off his racing pace to some degree, one could accept the strings' lack of perfection; it even happens on recordings.
Still, I'm tempted to conclude by saying this was the most organic ISO program I've witnessed to date.