A standing ovation following the first movement of a three-movement concerto! Why, this is simply never done by properly ritualized concertgoers! Unless it's the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; unless the soloist is Hoosier marquee performer Joshua Bell; unless the conductor is Mario Venzago - the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's newly appointed music director.
Joshua Bell performed with the ISO last weekend.
According to ISO President Dick Hoffert, only 31 seats were left unsold that morning for last Friday's second concert of the season featuring Venzago at the podium. Our Swiss-born, German-speaking music director drew this kind of enthusiasm at his first season appearance early last November - both times in a period where sparser crowds have been the norm. Overheard from one patron during intermission: "He needs to come more often, to help fill the house."
Venzago opened his concert inauspiciously with this season's obligatory American work, the short "To Music," composed in 1994 by the currently celebrated John Corigliano. Written as a titular homage to Schubert's great song "An die Musik" - which we heard so well-done recently in the Suzuki and Friends chamber series - the later-written work will surely take away none of Schubert's luster. Beginning languidly with a large string complement, "To Music's" chief attraction proved to be its use of offstage brass - with "offstage" referring to the main-floor lobby. Quoting obtusely from the Schubert song only made me wish it were the latter I was hearing; "To Music" was a waste, albeit only a seven-minute one.
In 1982, a 14-year-old Joshua Bell made his ISO debut at the orchestra's inaugural Conner Prairie summer season - with the very Tchaikovsky (Concerto in D, Op. 35) he played at this concert. Since then, the Bloomington-born-and-raised prodigy has surmounted every challenge in achieving his present international recognition as a concertizing soloist of the first rank.
This time, however, Bell's appearance was unique for the collaboration between violinist and conductor in shaping this all-too-familiar chestnut, in conveying a freshness of expressive possibility. This, even though Bell and Venzago got slightly out of sync once or twice near the work's beginning. Clearly, however, they had something going which carried them through the remainder of the concerto while casting an almost hypnotic spell.
Though Bell offered his expected virtuosic dazzle when called for, its effect was muted, subsumed within Venzago's musical conception, one intensely communicating with the audience. And the audience was right: right to applaud when they did, right to elevate the first movement's standing ovation to a thundering one at the work's end. The Tchaikovsky has perhaps shown the Venzago style most successfully to date. His concluding work, Stravinsky's complete ballet music for The Firebird (1909), emerged less satisfactorily.
Though the composer extracted and rescored Firebird as a suite for smaller orchestra in 1919 - the latter becoming a repertory standard - the remainder of Stravinsky's career-launching score has its own riches. In shaping Firebird to his own expressive concept, Venzago sometimes compromised the composer"s fundamental rhythmic element, his huge orchestra producing muddy textures here and there. Still, our music director kept his audience fully in his grasp.