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Review: Venzago sells out ISO

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Former music director Mario Venzago
  • Former music director Mario Venzago

Though Friday's ISO concert was sold out, there was no Saturday repeat, perhaps cramming both audience sets into one house -- something we're seeing more of than in preceding seasons.   Of course it's a given that Mario Venzago, locally beloved because of his previous ouster in 2009 by an unsympathetic administration, will always be a draw.  For most it was a magic mix of his unique persona and his unquestionable conducting prowess.

An unexpected highlight of this program was the U.S. debut of a new percussion instrument, the aluphone, a series of aluminum bells of varying sizes and pitches on a stand six to eight feet in length.   Film composer Anders Koppel (b. 1947) launched the instrument with his Concerto for Aluphone, a three movement work which also included a marimba, presumably added for more tonal variety.  Both were played by the venerable Dame Evelyn Glennie, British percussionist extraordinaire.

Cast in three movements, the aluphone dominates in the first, its timbres difficult enough to define that you have to hear it to believe it.   It shimmers a bit like a vibraphone but has no equivalent electric power source to produce the latter's tremolo effect.   Wielding two mallets in each hand, Dame Glennie struck widely varying intervals at sometimes breakneck speed, creating a ringing tapestry of a modern idiom, acquainting us with this new sound color.  Glennie introduced the marimba in the second movement, such that it gradually became more prominent and dominated the final movement.  The aluphone was what was of interest.   The marimba could have been left out; we've heard it before.

Venzago's orchestra provided a tonal accompaniment to the percussion, scarcely leaving the key of G minor (if my ears didn't deceive me), an often subdued contrast to Dame Glennie's histrionics.   The aluphone deserves to make its way into all concert halls, both for percussion ensemble work and as a solo percussion instrument.

Venzago ended his program with a lively account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 ("Eroica")--a "watershed" in the history of the symphony: in its 45-minute length, in its first-movement's extended development introducing an unheralded "new" theme, in its "funeral march" slow movement, in its rapid, elfin scherzo.   Yet taking it at a ponderous tempo spells a death knell for musical initiates unable to tolerate its overexposure.

No problem therein with Venzago's reading, who used the metronome markings Beethoven himself added to the scores of his early symphonies after the device was invented in 1816.  Compared with past generation accounts, these are faster than were ever ordinarily heard.  With the precision Venzago pulled from his beloved players, the "Eroica" came across as exciting, pulse-grabbing and recapturing my fancy anew.  His standing ovation at the concert's end was wholly expected, and deserved.

I'd nearly forgotten Finlandia, which started the evening's proceedings.  Sibelius's most popular work, owing to its central hymn-tune, later incorporated into Protestant hymnals, often with the words, "Be Still my Soul," predicted the outcome of the concert's remainder as Venzago launched into those opening brass figures with the same gusto he delivered for the ensuing two hours.  Nov. 21; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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