Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Classical Series Program No. 9
Hilbert Circle Theatre
French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, always a standout when appearing here, delivered another winner as a podium guest with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last weekend. Pianist Stephen Hough performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last weekend.
This time Villaume invaded and conquered the most intimate turf of his fellow countryman, Maurice Ravel. The concert was further enhanced by the solo appearance of British pianist Stephen Hough (pronounced "huff"), playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1.
The debut performance of an ISO commissioned work opened the program: an eight-minute trifle entitled Songs of my Father by film composer David Newman. His title refers to quickly sampled film motifs written by his father, Alfred Newman, who scored dozens of feature films and won many awards in the first several decades of the sound era.
The younger Newman is not likely to garner any awards for this piece, however. Songs is accessible enough, but - as a medley, a potpourri, a sampler - it attempts too much too quickly. Under the guise of brilliant orchestration, the referenced tunes are too brief, too fleeting for anyone not intimately familiar with Alfred Newman's scores. What is needed by the classical community is the recognition of a vast treasure trove of worthy film music, which could be reworked for symphonic performance, and which would resonate with classical-loving audiences - much of it virtually unknown and unheard in any live venue. Perhaps in a future column, I can list and discuss some of these scores.
Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto contains all the pianistic fireworks of the composer's second and third concertos, but lacks the memorable tunes, the motifs, the soul and the perceived inevitability of the latter two.
Still, hearing Hough play any work is a joy. His keyboard technique - muscle, coupled with a mature command of Rachmaninoff's musical resources - compels. Villaume, in turn, produced nicely synced orchestral textures in a work where brilliant orchestration is not a hallmark. Following a standing applause, Hough offered as a solo encore a contrasting, sensitively played, Brahmsian Nocturne in B-flat by Ignace J. Paderewski from his Op. 16 collection (1888).
In Ravel's music from his ballet Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) - even more than in his other numerous orchestral-repertoire standards - color-evoking-mood means everything. In this homage to well known fairy tales which premiered in 1912, Villaume teased color and mood from our players as few have from any orchestra I've heard. Even in the most familiar excerpt, "Laíderonnette, Empress of the Pagodas," Villaume kept Ravel's percussion laden chinoiserie as languorous as in his "Sleeping Beauty," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tom Thumb" sections; and it worked.
With an orchestra containing two horns but no brass instruments, Ravel's use of the harp, celesta and xylophone was quite selective but Villaume highlighted them all the more for it. It was the winds, however, which displayed the most exquisite harmonic transitions unique to the early 20th century - nowhere more than in the concluding "The Fairy Garden." It is regrettable that beginning in the 1930s, so-called art music became, in general, uglier. Unbeknownst to the concertgoing public, film scores then began to take up the slack ...