Classical Music Hilbert Circle Theatre
Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Following two or three days of rehearsal — and two performances of Gustav Holst’s popular The Planets for Orchestra, Raymond Leppard once again made the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra his own. After retiring in 2001 after 14 years as music director, the orchestra’s British-born conductor laureate completely restamped his podium style onto his players in an all-British program — as though he had never left.
Unlike Mario Venzago, his recent replacement, Leppard generally likes to penetrate a score with deliberate, mostly unvarying tempos while yielding his nuances dynamically and bringing out ensemble sections with the utmost clarity. This has produced remarkably inspiring performances — as in this concert’s Planets, and as Venzago has done in the best realizations of his style. The quickness of the orchestra’s reversion was what made this result astonishing. Leppard, at age 77, seemed reinvigorated in conducting his former players once more.
Our conductor laureate began with an early work of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), the Overture from his incidental music to The Wasps, a classical Greek play by Aristophanes. V.W. (as Leppard calls him) scored this rather timely satire on lawyers in 1909, early in his late blooming career. Leppard and his reduced orchestra swept through this agreeable nod to Sir Edward Elgar’s influence with nary a problem in sight.
The same can be said for Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” extracted from his 1945 opera Peter Grimes, and played without interruption. A personal friend of Britten — one of the greats of 20th century Britain, Leppard is clearly at home in this stylistic world.
Holst completed his Planets, Op. 32 (1916), when he was only 22, making a musico-astrological survey of the seven known major solar-revolving orbs apart from Earth (Pluto wasn’t discovered till 1930). Of these musical treatments, Leppard only failed to achieve restless urgency in the first: “Mars, the Bringer of War,” taking too slow a tempo. Still, his thunderous climaxes proved affecting with a near perfectly articulated account.
In “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” we heard beautifully serene ensemble work, including ravishing solos from a violin, cello and oboe — plus a quartet of flutes. “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” lacked the fleetness but otherwise displayed an apropos lightness of texture. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” worked in all respects, the orchestra sparkling in its many facets. The contrasting “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” moved me as no recording ever has. Leppard captured all the droll satire of “Uranus, the Magician” with an effectively deliberate ponderousness.
It is the concluding “Neptune, the Mystic,” however, that embodies true other-worldliness, adding an off-stage women’s chorus — this one part of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir — which perfectly caps the rest of the suite. No doubt about it: This was vintage Leppard — and from an “excellent year” at that.