ISO Classical Series Program No. 11; Hilbert Circle Theatre; March 4-5.
Though Pablo Heras-Casado is only 33, his appearance at last weekend’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program showed a marvelous maturity in directing our 80-plus players. Still, he is some four years older than Krzysztof Urbanski, who will make his first appearance this May as the ISO’s music director designate. All the talented podium youth represented by these two is a good omen for the future of the classical orchestra.
A native of Granada, Spain, Heras-Casado made the evening’s highlight, for me, his take on La Mer (1905), one of Claude Debussy’s greatest and most popular masterworks. Whether you choose to view the work as a perfect evocation of the sea or simply the finest music ever written with the sea as an allusive backdrop, it is as compelling from one measure to the next — one phrase to the next — as most any other great symphonic work you can name.
And Heras-Casado had the measure of its three parts: “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” “Play of the Waves” and “Dialogue of Wind and Sea.” He had each phrase evolving — one to the next — as though inevitable, with a lightly nuanced control of tempo, phrasing and dynamics — played over a huge orchestra. He kept a near perfect balance among the strings, the winds, the horns, the brass, the percussion — and finally the two delicate harps. The orchestra responded to their “batonless” conductor’s view of the work with sufficient clarity as to give me a five-star experience.
The other French work employed the services of Argentine guest pianist Ingrid Fliter, 37, of Buenos Aires (and clearly of German ancestry), in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. Fliter immediately showed her excellent virtuosity in her lengthy solo opening, recalling Jean-Yves Thibaudet from a week earlier (herein reviewed). Then the orchestra opens with the same two chords (transposed) as begins Mozart’s Don Giovanni — and we’re off and running.
A gladsome display work lacking profundity, Saint-Saëns’ 2nd is nonetheless a delightful aperitif whose second movement strongly recalls Mendelssohn’s fairy-like writing, and is probably Saint-Saëns’ most identifiable movement from his five piano concertos. Like so many concerted works of the later 19th century, its orchestration is rather thin (we hardly ever hear the winds), with the piano taking front and center. Fliter showed absolute mastery of the keyboard throughout. In the concluding Presto, her fingers whipsawed up and down its compass, revealing a bit of Chopin here and there. She deserved her standing ovation and encored us with Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz — taking seemingly less than a minute.
Compared with the two French works, America was not so well represented. The program opened with John Adams’ Lollapalooza (1995), a short piece with a skanky, repetitive rhythm which doesn’t leave us alone. It also dominates us with low-register trombone figures that go on and on. But this poorly composed work’s worst feature is that the entire string complement, visibly sawing away, is essentially inaudible within the din of brass and percussion; they might as well have taken a break, saving themselves for the ensuing Saint-Saëns.
After intermission we heard an early work of Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 2 (“Short Symphony,” 1932), cast in three short, connecting movements. Containing the skewed rhythms of the Stravinsky of that period, it lacks the neo-classic structure and harmonic containment of the latter composer, revealing a bit of an “enfant terrible” but with less mastery than the early Prokofiev. After producing this work, Copland matured and captured a well justified following.
As a final note, this concert was eminently worthwhile for Heras-Casado, the Saint-Saëns — and mostly because it ended with La Mer.