"ISO Classical Series Program No. 14

Hilbert Circle Theatre

March 16-17

Rewards seemingly relate as much to expectations as anything else. Last weekend, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra hosted another orchestra and started an hour earlier — a first for its classical series — before appearing itself, the single intermission occurring between the two groups. From 7 p.m. to 7:45, we heard the Honor Orchestra of America, 80 of the finest high-school musicians from around the country, conducted (mostly) by Larry Livingston. From them, I expected less — and got more. From the ISO, which followed at 8:10, I expected more — and got less.

Having much experience working with young aspiring musicians, Livingston led the Honor group, which first came together as an ensemble on March 14 (a week ago!), in Verdi’s Overture to Nabucco, Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his well-known Enigma Variations and the final movement from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. ISO music director Mario Venzago assumed the podium and celebrated violinist Pinchas Zukerman joined these young people for Dvorak’s lovely Romance in F Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 11.

First let me report that these 80 impressed beyond belief — especially given that they’d had only two days together as an ensemble. Their string intonation was essentially perfect, and their woodwind, brass and percussion work was essentially mistake free; I heard no blatantly audible slips. Under Venzago’s direction, Zukerman and the young players produced a seamless account of the Dvorak, an early work with a few Wagner allusions. Though the young ensemble could have provided a little more verve in the Shostakovich, we did hear lots of precise playing, with the bass drummer taking obvious pleasure in pounding his instrument at the symphony’s shattering final cadence.

Livingston and his young players regrettably upstaged the other evening highlight: the debut performance of ISO principal trombonist James Beckel’s Toccata for Orchestra, which began the ISO part of the program under Venzago. One of the few contemporary composers who gives us something to sink our teeth into (Jennifer Higdon is another), Beckel had previously impressed with his Fantasy after Schubert a few years ago. His Toccata easily maintains his earlier standard, showing his expected mastery in orchestration.

Instead of the delicate employment of a serial tone row, as in the Fantasy, Beckel’s latest explores the so-called “circle of fifths,” while employing fifths and fourths as open intervals, but in a new and exciting way. A xylophone struck with soft mallets serves as a connecting link between the loud sections. The audience gave the nine-minute Toccata a well-deserved standing ovation. Beckel came forward from the back tier to accept his accolades, having played in his own piece.

For me, the program’s remainder proved anticlimactic: Zukerman rejoined Venzago for Max Bruch’s celebrated Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 — a Romantic-repertoire mainstay. The venerable violinist, conductor, ensemble organizer and administrator gave us a consistently opulent tone and the interpretive assurance that comes from many years of public appearances.

Venzago’s final two works disappointed, in both interpretive approach and playing. Debussy’s La Mer and Georges Enesco’s (or Enescu’s) Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A both suffered from excessive rubato in the soft passages and ragged execution at too many points to maintain this orchestra’s standards. Venzago, who’s done some amazing work with the ISO since his arrival, seemingly reverted to the conducting we heard at his very first ISO appearance in 2001 as one of many music-director candidates, a program also featuring La Mer.



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