Arts » Theater + Dance

Review: Vienna on the Prairie

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Grace Fong. Submitted Photo.
  • Grace Fong. Submitted Photo.

3.5 stars – Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Conner Prairie; July 29-30.

5 stars – Grace Fong, pianist

Last Friday was not so humid an evening as most July weekend Prairie concerts have been. But the threat of rain descended upon the modest-sized group of prairie picnickers during the first movement of the final scheduled work, Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, in the well-known orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg. Eugene Tzigane was the guest conductor.

This forced announcer-and-host Scott Hoke to stop the proceedings as Op. 25's first movement ended. As I dislike this overly glitzy treatment of what is essentially chamber construction, along with a great many musicians — Mario Venzago, our former ISO music director, said he'd never program it — I felt cheated only by the shortened concert length.

But Grace Fong's presence for all of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271 more than made up for nature putting a stop to Schoenberg's Brahms. One of Indy's two 2009-awarded American Pianists Association Fellows, Fong has since returned here from Southern California a number of times for solo recitals and concert appearances. Each time she has mesmerized with her essentially faultless playing.

With K. 271 she shared one of Mozart's supreme compositions, possibly as Mozart himself might have played it (or wished it done). Every note audible with perfect phrasing, clean articulation and delicate nuance—seemingly effortless passage and octave work in the difficult final movement . . . one sits back and goes, wow!

Fong played K. 271 here once before, in the APA Premiere series, with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. What she wrought Friday was at least as mesmerizing. And — given the distractions of outdoor playing — Tzigane and the orchestra (two oboes, two horns and the strings) held up their end of the bargain quite well, with the amplified sound holding sway over live instrumental timbres — even when seated close to the stage.

This weekend's theme, Evening in Olde Vienna, was stretched a bit, when considering that Mozart wrote his Ninth Concerto in 1777 while still in Salzburg serving its Archbishop. It was ostensibly written for a prize pupil, "Jeunehomme." With many attributing its exceptional quality to Mozart's "closeness" to his pupil, no other such person can be found as a cause for the composer to have equaled — or possibly exceeded — K. 271 two years later with his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364 (which the ISO just performed last May), shortly before he moved to Vienna. Perhaps we tend to make too strong a tie with events/persons at one point in a composer's life to the character/caliber of a concurrent composition.

Tzigane began his program with its theme's most apropos work, the Overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr. It too was well played. As a matter of fact, a more thematically bound program would have been exemplified by an evening of light Schubert joining the Waltz-King. But then we would have missed Grace Fong, K.271 — and been losers for it.

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