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Review: ISO Symphonic Hits Program No. 4

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4 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Nov. 18-20. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist David Bellman was the hit in last weekend's "Hit" program, as soloist in Mozart's sublime Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622. Featuring guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth, the ISO played a program of favorites, but it was Bellman and the Mozart which deservedly got the standing ovation.

For this performance, Bellman used a basset clarinet — seemingly a foot longer and extending the bottom register by four half tones, a more authentic instrument for K. 622 as Mozart had conceived it. In any case, the concerto is filled with sumptuously beautiful writing, a perfect mix of joy with wistful undertones, offering us many allusions to the composer's late style, in particular to his concurrently written opera The Magic Flute. Bellman, with his special instrument, offered a mellow timbre, in perfect keeping with the small orchestra and the multi-layered moods Mozart evokes, as Bellman sailed equally through leap-frogging passages and lovely, lyric lines. Wigglesworth had his strings and small wind complement precisely in step with our veteran soloist.

Just prior to the Mozart, Wigglesworth opened with another sublime work: the two extant movements of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony (No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759). Though maintaining his players' precision, our British maestro took as fast a tempo as I've ever heard it, in both movements. The result was that the lyric section of the first movement and the exquisitely yearning bridge to the orchestra's dramatic outburst (appearing twice) in the second movement sounded rushed: Wigglesworth sailed right past passages needing to be held back and savored — just a little. But, to be fair, most earlier performances and recordings of the "Unfinished" have been taken too slowly, robbing the work of its dramatic thrust. I prefer Wigglesworth's approach to those "traditional" ones.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (1960) — as arranged for string orchestra by Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai — came after the break. Here again, Wigglesworth's full string complement did full justice to this bleak, five movement essay on what Shostakovich felt at the time was to be his final work. Ironically he lived another 15 years, producing another seven string quartets and also completing 15 symphonies. Wigglesworth made this one seamlessly sad, the strings reaching expressive heights in the final two — both largos — of the interconnected five movements, their successive three-chord punctuations conveying imminent demise. The epilogue "largo" featured excellent solo playing by cellist Robert Sansone, then violinist Philip Palermo.

Wigglesworth commented on the composer's state of mind before conducting the piece — mentioning Josef Stalin as the Soviet Union's monstrous dictator, who was "offended" by a much earlier Shostakovich opera (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), placing the latter's life in peril. Our maestro failed, however, to point out that Stalin had died in 1953, seven years before this quartet was written. Other factors, in other words, may have contributed to Shostakovich's emotional health.

A "brand-new" Wagner opera "synthesis" ended the program. Wigglesworth, who assembled it, calls it Suite from Die Meistersinger, in which he concatenates the Prelude to Act 3, the "Dance of the Apprentices," the "Procession of the Mastersingers" and the Prelude to Act 1. Many music lovers are aware that the first three of these excerpts are often played together in concert and have been forever, but separate from the Act 1 Prelude. Why? Because the latter virtually duplicates the "Procession" march excerpt both at its beginning and end; we'd hear too much repetition.

Wigglesworth neatly resolves this by jumping from the procession's opening to just past the Act 1 Prelude's intro — in another seamless link. The result is a compact survey of the essential Meistersinger (absent only the famous "Prize Song"), from the homespun lyricism of the Act 3 Prelude to the climactic finale of the opera, tacked on in any concert performance of the Act 1 Prelude — with nothing overdone. Aside from the winds encountering a few rough spots in the contrapuntal section near the suite's end, Wigglesworth led a well-conceived, well executed performance. This was an excellent concert to usher in the ISO's December Yuletide Celebration.

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