Tom Aldridge

ISO Classical Series Program No. 8

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Jan. 5-7

More shtick than "stick"?: Guest artist Andrew Litton led the ISO last weekend.

The new year begins, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra renews almost simultaneously, having completed just a third of its 2005-'06 classical-series concerts. Last weekend's program was a crowd pleaser from start to finish, with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony being conducted, and played, by guest artist Andrew Litton. And the "crowds" were up considerably from what has been usual for this season.

Unlike many pianists who later turn into conductors, Litton - now in his final season as the Dallas Symphony music director - pursued both from an early age. It is, of course, Gershwin's world-famous "Rhapsody" which requires a piano soloist, so that we had Litton sitting at the piano when he had to play and standing in place to wave his arms and batonless hands when he didn't. How can one person direct 87 other instruments and play his own simultaneously?

Well, he can't. The fact that Litton can wave his hands, thereby indicating the tempo and giving his cues only while he's standing and cease doing it while playing, suggests a bit of showmanship - more shtick than "stick." Especially since all the ISO's previous "Rhapsody" performances seemed to require separate musicians for conducting and keyboard work. There's also the ego element: In the pre-concert Words on Music, Litton seemed full enough of himself that host Geoffrey Lapin couldn't get him to stop talking, having to cut short his following interview with ISO principal bassist Ju-Fang Liu. And though Litton establishes no precedent in assuming this dual role, the repertoire where it has been principally employed usually doesn't go past Mozart's era.

However, and to be fair, "Rhapsody in Blue" does offer extended piano solos, along with extended orchestral sections without the soloist. This allows the piano passages themselves to serve as cues for the orchestra. The performance appeared to be well-honed, with little evidence of raggedness, rough entrances and the like. Litton's piano was unusually positioned at 45 degrees toward the orchestra, allowing him to better survey his players. His passage work was truly virtuosic, but the hall seemed more reverberant than usual, glazing over some of his articulation.

From principal clarinetist David Bellman's opening trill and upward glide to the theme that also ends the piece some 17 minutes later, the orchestra gave "Rhapsody" an effective, appropriately jazzy rendition that blazed through the audience like fireworks. Enough that Litton encored with a difficult piano rendition of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm."

From a quarter-hour first half, we went to a one-full-hour post intermission with Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Written in 1906, the work marks the end of an era for a symphonic style defined by Tchaikovsky and somewhat refined by Sibelius in his first two symphonies: romantic melody enveloped in a large-scale structure with strong, popular appeal. The symphony appeared between the composer's second and third piano concertos, the former in the ISO's schedule for next month. All three works have much in common, not the least of which is that the march figure opening both concertos also gets recalled in the symphony's Finale. And all three end with a nearly identical flourish. Plus the broad, limpid tune dominating the symphony's slow movement hardly differs from a part of the "Full Moon and Empty Arms" theme from the second concerto's Finale.

Litton, conducting without a score, did not observe the usual cuts in the long first movement, but he did omit the exposition's repeat, saving nearly four minutes. The ensuing Scherzo, which would have benefited from a livelier tempo, did show a touch of raggedness - though Litton was now on the podium, stick in hand. The rest went quite well, enough that the frenzied applause at the end was well-deserved.


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