ISO Classical Series Program No. 7
Hilbert Circle Theatre
A young conductor, bounding on stage and launching the first piece before we catch our breath, can fleetingly impress with his exuberance alone. Giancarlo Guerrero of Nicaragua and Costa Rica did just that in the first Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra classical concert program of 2007. And the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience had, in turn, bounded in to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, the first work marking this season’s ISO Beethoven Mid-Winter Festival. But Guerrero saved this world’s-most-popular symphony for last.
In the pre-concert Words on Music, Guerrero delivered (on Friday) a non-stop, gushingly exuberant 20-minute monologue on the virtues of the Fifth — a bit overwrought for these jaded ears. This was in response to a brief introductory question posed by WoM guest host Dr. Joy Calico of Vanderbilt U, and forced her to cut short her discussion and recorded samples of the rest of the program after Guerrero’s departure.
Guerrero began the rest of the program with Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonia India (1936), perhaps the Mexican composer/conductor’s best-known work. Filled with elements from Mayan folk sources, the work’s use of pentatonic scales (created by playing the piano’s black keys) could have come from any of myriad cultures and their folk sources; you can’t tell without a program. Which possibly explains why much of Sinfonia’s harmonic texture sounds like a Mexican Aaron Copland. Chávez’s use of percussion is, however, marvelously unique in shaping the timbre effect wrought from the orchestra as a whole. I found Guerrero’s reading of this single-movement work wholly satisfying.
Offering the greatest of contrasts, Richard Strauss’ 1881 Serenade in E-flat for 13 Winds, Op. 7 followed — the stage emptied save for those players. Scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, two bassoons and a contrabassoon, it was the product of a 17-year-old Strauss. Though modeled after Mozart’s wind serenades, Strauss’ lovely harmonies are Romantic in texture, and betray little of the post-Romanticism he launched with his Don Juan tone poem seven years later. Given that the players could have fended for themselves, I again found Guerrero’s reading of this single-movement work wholly satisfying.
Next came a German masterwork of Paul Hindemith: his Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1943). Generally acknowledged the Classical/Romantic transition composer, Weber was a forerunner of Richard Wagner. While avoiding any of Weber’s well-known themes, Hindemith also avoided his own neo-Classic bent toward academic dryness. A standout among its four movements is the second, “Turandot: Scherzo,” with an Oriental flavor suggesting Puccini. I found Guerrero’s reading of this multimovement work wholly satisfying.
Regrettably, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, the work our young conductor seemed most obsessed with (along with everybody else), proved anything but wholly satisfying. While Guerrero took medium-paced, rigid tempos throughout and fully highlighted the important thematic lines, he failed to achieve that nth degree of ensemble precision that makes a rigid tempo taut and “inexorable.” In fact, in many places, the playing was simply ragged, replacing inexorable tautness with — for ISO standards — an almost sloppy run-through. Three seasons ago, ISO music director Mario Venzago set a new-century standard for the Fifth; Guerrero did not come close to it.