Arts » Theater + Dance

Review: Joshua Bell plays two venues with ISO

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2.5 stars – ISO Special Presentation; Carmel Palladium; May 5

3.5 stars – ISO Classical Series Program No. 16; Hilbert Circle Theatre; May 6-7

A program dominated by Joshua Bell and Tchaikovsky is an excellent choice for introducing the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to the newly heralded Palladium in Carmel — then moving the same program some 12 miles south to the Circle Theatre, the ISO’s home. What better opportunity to compare the same forces playing the same music in two radically different halls with yin/yang-contrasted acoustic properties? I couldn’t resist.

First the resemblances: Though the Circle was officially sold out for both its Friday and Saturday concerts two weeks in advance, the Palladium came very close to being packed (it was reportedly sold out). From my observation, seated in its “gallery”— its uppermost balcony straight back from the stage — I saw only a few scattered seats remaining. But the Circle seats 1750 while the Palladium seats 1600, so more people attended each evening’s downtown events.

The Palladium gallery is clearly as good for acoustic clarity as any location where I’ve been seated in my several visits north. The orchestra delivered a rich, blooming reverb — about the most you would desire without experiencing ensemble muddiness. Plus the orchestra was amply loud, considering my far greater distance from it as compared with my usual Circle seat. Furthermore, the bass sounds were the best I’ve heard in any hall in these environs. Every tap of the bass drum, no matter how light, gave us a clear “boom.” A hard strike gave us a throbbing “vroom” — one I’ve only heard in the Circle from its present Wurlitzer organ or a previously good electronic one.

But . . . on Friday, the Circle decided to compete, with its acoustic enhancement at last turned on seemingly full, adding richness to the ensemble that I’ve missed all season, especially with a full house. While making the orchestra’s double-bass complement lower and more resonant, those electronics did nothing for the bass drum. When lightly tapped, it remained wholly inaudible from the first mezzanine; when struck hard, it gave us more of a timpani sound, an occurrence common to this venue.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 and Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 were written almost simultaneously in about 1878. Guest conductor Christoph Eberle and Joshua Bell, the former Indiana/IU wunderkind now having reached a pinnacle at age 42 among the world’s top touring violin soloists, were showcased respectively in the symphony and the concerto.

Eberle failed to show the ISO at its best with Op. 36, especially in Carmel. At one point in the first movement in the fanfare section just before the development, the orchestra seemingly got a bit unraveled for a few bars before it again caught its stride. In other sections, we heard instances of ragged playing. Though the ensemble improved overall at the Circle, a tempo change near the frenzied Finale’s end was not taken by all players at the same time. Both evenings showed playing beneath the high standards our orchestra has demonstrated throughout the bulk of this season.

Bell, favoring a seamless approach to the Concerto, gave us, nonetheless, his usual narrowly confined tone, but he rendered it with much beauty and a faultless pitch — rather like the Japanese master Midori when she played here last October. Taking the Finale at a lightning pace, he tended to slide over all that rapid passage work, rendering some of its notes inaudible as he seemed to rush headlong to that final hurrah. Those passages have been taken about as fast by certain “others,” but with precision staccato (obvious note separation) and not one note missing.

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