Last weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program contained perhaps the highlight of its current season: a thrilling violin concerto in its performance debut - played by the paragon of violinists currently on tour - joined by our music director, Mario Venzago, at his best, plus a large, wholly receptive audience. It made for what must by now be an abused term: a "memorable" evening.
The Violin Concerto was written by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) for 29-year-old violinist Hilary Hahn, the third ISO entry for Higdon and the third local appearance for Hahn - their first collaboration. Both artists had created a sensation here for each of their separate appearances, and undoubtedly most everywhere they've toured. A while back, Venzago had initially put the bug in Hahn's ear for this collaboration when they were together in Europe.
The standing ovation went on and on following the half-hour-plus, three-movement work: Higdon, Hahn and Venzago taking repeated bows. Finally, Hahn abruptly silenced the crowd with an encore: the "Sarabande" from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor - a piece she has recorded and which precedes (by two numbers) the great D Minor "Chaconne" of our violin competition fame.
Why is Higdon's concerto successful when so much contemporary music comes out of the woodwork, gets a hearing and disappears from whence it came? For one thing, Higdon handles the Modern orchestral style with a mastery that eludes a majority of her colleagues. All too many new works: (1) contain too few tonal references or common chords, (2) fail to balance the various ensembles such that one section (often the percussion) tends to predominate or the soloist is drowned out and (3) represent a compendium of compositions that are either revealed only by musicians studying their scores or containing repetitive figures that "groove" the listener in. The unity/diversity factor so audibly prevalent in great works from earlier centuries is all too often absent.
Everything new that Higdon incorporates is tasteful and in balance such that the entire orchestra remains articulate, containing many tonal references while sharing special sonic colors modern orchestras can provide (for example, Higdon's use of knitting needles as percussion sticks). Her three movements are titled "1726," "Chaconni" and "Fly Forward"- the first one enigmatic. It represents Higdon's "mystery" number, for which she will reward the first few who correctly guess its meaning. "Chaconni" is an Italianized play on the plural of chaconne - a French word meaning variations on a short chord progression, whose plural expectedly would be chaconnes. "Fly Forward" is a short tour de force showing Hahn at her virtuosic best - but that is her least special attribute.
As Higdon soon learned, Hahn can play anything her colleague can write, but so can most marquee players touring these days. What Hahn showed us in the two earlier movements is her almost unique ability to create beautiful tones from any note progression. In this respect, she's at the top of the current heap; merely hearing her draw her bow across one or more strings creates magic, no matter what she's playing.
Venzago began this seminal concert with Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to Der Freischütz, a polished account of the first major composer's foray into Romanticism. Our maestro concluded with a beautifully shaped reading of Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120, in which his pauses, ritards and rubati brought out the composer's Schumannesque qualities as no strict-tempo performance ever does. A spectacular evening and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.