Classical Music

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Classical Series Program No. 7

Hilbert Circle Theatre

Nov. 11-13 Pianist Denis Matsuev dazzled the crowd at Hilbert this past weekend.

He was born in Siberia (the city of Irkutsk). He won the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Playing Rachmaninoff's quite familiar Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under its music director Mario Venzago last weekend, pianist Denis Matsuev brought down (or "up") the house as few solo performers have. He followed, rekindling their enthusiasm, with a solo encore: Vladimir Horowitz's Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen - specifically the "Gypsy Dance," opening Act 2.

Playing fast and loud is a winning formula for producing audience thunder, and Matsuev clearly proved he could do both. There's a point, however, when mature restraint adds musical mastery to flashing fingers. Up through the famous 18th variation, where Rachmaninoff turns the famous Paganini 24th-Violin-Caprice theme upside-down and recasts it in the major mode - creating for many a "brand-new" melody - Matsuev had been praiseworthy. Playing a borrowed, lustrous black Yamaha, he showed excellent dynamic shaping and control, dropping even to a feather-light touch. Venzago, in turn, coaxed his orchestra into excellently chosen tempo variations, bringing new life to an old, often-played repertoire standard.

Matsuev lost most of this control in the boisterous, concluding variations. He practically drowned the orchestra in pounding out the "Dies Irae"-laden conclusion like a jackhammer - then delivering a similar pounding throughout his Horowitz encore. The young Russian pianist's astounding technique simply went over the top: There are times when just because you can doesn't mean you should ...

This final concert before the ISO's Christmas Yuletide "break" began with a quite agreeable - to most, at any rate - American contemporary offering: blue cathedral, by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962). Lasting 13 minutes, this paean to her prematurely deceased brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, is cast in a very accessible, tonal idiom. Exhibiting a well-balanced orchestration, it displays tasteful use (finally!) of a modern percussion complement, especially high percussion - including numerous Chinese bells. These come to the fore toward the piece's ethereal conclusion, with a large portion of the ISO player complement ringing them.

Though I heard fleeting suggestions of both Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson in her writing, Higdon is not a derivative composer; she merely displays subliminal influences, as do most composers following tradition. Otherwise, the price of complete "originality" can often be excessive. Though I rate blue cathedral high among ISO-presented, recently-composed works, I'd still give the nod to our own James Beckel's (ISO principal trombonist) Fantasy after Schubert as the best new piece I've heard in 2004.

Venzago concluded his program with a somewhat insecure reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98. Professing that he's "not a Brahms conductor," Venzago nonetheless began the masterfully crafted symphony well, using effective tempos and getting precision playing during the first two movements. However, the majestic third movement and the crowning, 31-variation Finale suffered from racing in the loud passages while reverting to a crawl in the soft ones. This demonstrates a Venzago interpretive trademark, which has worked wonderfully in some works ... but not here.


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