Arts » Theater + Dance

Review: Andre Watts & the ISO

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4 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre
Jan. 20-22

There’s no doubt: The “wattage” of any concert rises precipitously when André Watts is part of it. But the world renowned, now IU-based pianist wasn’t the only star of last weekend’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert. Guest conductor Carlo Rizzi shone just as brightly in a two-for-one program of repertoire behemoths: Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 (“Emperor”) and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Op. 14. Rizzi has been only the latest in a series of top-notch podium artists to visit the ISO this season: people such as James Gaffigan, Mark Wigglesworth and Gilbert Varga virtually stepping into the Circle Theatre from elsewhere, and, in two or three days, wringing the best out of our 80 or so players.

Rizzi began with Mozart’s jeweled miniature, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492, quite possibly the Salzburg master’s most famous orchestral work. Taken on the fast side of normal, the five-minute piece gelled into well nuanced precision and clarity under Rizzi’s beat in a “not quite the greatest” but an excitingly paced account, with perfect wind-string balance.

Hearing Watts play Beethoven’s “Emperor” always renews my interest in a work which can be easily overexposed over a lifetime. Plus both Watts and Rizzi appeared to be of a mind in their approach to this perennial favorite. With the first movement taken at a near metronomic pace, Watts showed his power-in-reserve with the flashy opening passage work and the light, sparkling staccato work at the usual cadenza point near the movement’s end. This “power” seemed to flow from his shoulders through his arms to his fingers as he hunched over the keyboard producing an epitome of controlled dynamic nuance. It continued through the remaining two movements, the B major Adagio with its lovely thematic material, and the waltz-like Rondo finale. Considering both soloist and orchestra, getting the most out of the “Emperor” requires a deft use of power and control. Watts, Rizzi and his players delivered in spades.

Written in 1830, just three years after Beethoven’s death, the Symphonie Fantastique came from a 27-year-old Berlioz who was well ahead of his time. Whatever we can say about the Romantic-era orchestral prowess of Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, we must admit that Berlioz did it first — decades first, even. A program symphony in five long movements with a huge orchestra filled with brass, four timpanists and two bass drums written over a decade before Schumann’s first symphony—a standard, post-Classical one by comparison? The former gets more performances than any of Berlioz’s later output, undeservedly in my view.

But Rizzi’s dynamic approach to “Reveries and Passions,” “A Ball,” “Scenes in the Country,” “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath renewed my interest in the work, even in its droll, nearly motionless, excessively long “Scenes” movement. In following his program of unrequited love, imagined murder and a hellish final dwelling with the grotesque use of the Dies Irae chant picked up later by Liszt and Rachmaninoff, Berlioz, like others after him, often disregards his musical structure, which must gel on its own merit. Yet Rizzi makes of it a stirring display piece, with all his orchestral forces right on target.

Friday’s program saw a nearly filled Circle, which muted the hall’s resonance excessively. If the built-in electronic enhancement had been turned on, I believe we would have heard a richer, more resonant acoustic — as we have in past programs with large audiences. If the Circle is to compete acoustically with Carmel’s Palladium, which is already resonant and needs no electronic enhancement, the ISO’s home should avail itself of what has been in place for years.

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