Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Taking a break from a violinist's showcase: Paganini Caprices work their manifold magic in this version for flute

Having recently experienced a surfeit of Paganini Caprices, op. 1, for solo violin during the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I've had an understandable desire to venture some distance from that exciting contest's required repertoire.

Fiddle respite: Marina Piccinini's flute
I didn't budge far at all, however, with "24 Capricci," flutist Marina Piccinini's arrangement and performances of these pinnacles of violin virtuosity by the legendary Niccolo Paganini (Avie, 2 discs).  Nonetheless, the canny ingenuity of this version — and the opportunity to revel in peerless flute sound instead of the wonted fiddle originals — had me hooked.

Piccinini's adaptation is winning and sensible in making the necessary alterations. Chords become arpeggios, and octaves (as in No. 3 in E minor) are divided between prefixed grace notes — sometimes the upper note, sometimes the lower — and the note in the same pitch-class. Her dynamics are always an aspect of these performances' charm, and her phrasing is artfully modified to accommodate breathing without marring the music's flow.

Sometimes a harmony note in the original is left out if an uninterruptedly smooth line in one register would better suit the music. There is little impression one gets of "simplification," however. This is first-rate flute playing, and sometimes the wizardly dispatch of the rapid sections — as in that of No. 4 in C minor — makes the slow main sections even more lyrical and haunting.

There is such an idiomatic transfer achieved in these performances that you can hear some of them, like No. 14 in E-flat, almost as if they were always supposed to be flute pieces. Piccinini is attentive to the full range of flute timbres: It's amazing to hear her sound like the composer-requested flute (no problem!) in No. 9 in E, then give a credible imitation of the horns Paganini stipulated in the answering phrases: She comes up with a heavier, heartier, woodland sound for contrast.

Everyone will want to know, of course, how this enterprising flutis does with No. 24 in A minor. The time-honored theme's variations are nicely distinguished from one another by tone color and tempo. There is ferocity, modesty, gracefulness and suggestions of flight inflecting the mood as the deathless music goes by.

Even violin fanatics may find themselves slipping these discs into the player next time they want to hear the Caprices, rather than their favorite Michael Rabin, James Ehnes or whoever.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona": subtle examination of young love or the slapdash work of a tyro? IRT suggests the former

There's not much you can do to lower Shakespeare's monumental stature, despite the pedestal-toppling  efforts of some great figures in Western literature (Voltaire, Shaw, and Tolstoy among them). Even if you produce such a weak work as "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," there's just enough merit in the text — and foreshadowings of greatness — that a whiz-bang theatrical presentation can lift it.

That's what Indiana Repertory Theatre accomplishes in its season-opening production. But lift it to what? the question arises. Certainly not to the level of the mature comedies. Even the early Roman comedy rewrite, "The Comedy of Errors," is more fun on the page,  besides being theatrically irresistible, given its tangles of mistaken identity. IRT just finished its second weekend presenting "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the show's entertainment value is immense, far beyond what the material suggests. It looks and sounds great, staged with IRT's typical flair.

Words to throw at a dog: Ryan Artzberger as Launce, Jenna as Crab.
One of the countless phrases Shakespeare lent the language is from this play: "to make a virtue of necessity."  It's so appropriate that the company, with this production  under Tim Ocel's direction, turns the necessity of carrying this odd story of male bonding and betrayal and inexplicable forgiveness into a virtue.  Vigorous performances do the trick, with a certain amount of forgivable mugging carried up the line from a gabby, clownish servant, Launce.

The eminent critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to wonder why Launce "is wasted upon The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is not at all good enough for him."  I can't quite agree, despite the rib-tickling virtuosity of Ryan Artzberger in the role  — a comic pinnacle underscored by the appeal of the laconic canine actor Jenna in the role of Crab, Launce's dog.

Because of the menace of upstaging, the immortal W. C. Fields advised adult entertainers against ever appearing onstage with children or dogs. Artzberger has now done both in recent memory (as Scrooge, he shoulders Tiny Tim annually in IRT's "Christmas Carol"), surmounting the danger handsomely in both instances.

Valentine (Charles Pasternak) and Proteus (Chris Bresky) embrace: We know what the "bro hug" means in the first scene, but what can it possibly mean in the last one?
Chris Bresky exhibits a wide range of facial expression as Proteus, the lovesick Veronese gentleman who is sent away to Milan to join his bosom buddy Valentine. There this cad-in-chrysalis emerges to become smitten with Valentine's girlfriend, Silvia, and schemes to supplant him in her affections.  Proteus is the more interesting of the two men, because however farfetched, his behavior is plausible and his determination to win a new woman for himself by any means necessary gets a lot of Shakespeare's attention. And whatever the Bard focuses on we would be unwise to belittle.

Valentine, on the other hand, barely earns our sympathy,  because he is sort of a blank. Victimized cruelly, he presents the puzzle of no-strings-attached amnesty for Proteus' crime in the last scene. There's a final "bro hug" between the two  — we've seen these hearty embraces earlier, but this one is questionable, to say the least — and then there's Valentine's pat speech assuring all concerned of future happiness. Charles Pasternak should be credited with bringing more vitality and wit to the character than its creator did.

The plot is surprisingly straightforward, yet the obstacles it raises toward the play's unrewarding resolution are hard to describe succinctly. It's best just to note several outstanding aspects of the supporting cast:  Of his three roles, Scot Greenwell gets the most scope as the play's other clown Speed, Valentine's servant, whom he raises in vitality nearly to the same plane as the critically esteemed Launce. Speed's explanation to his boss of the roundabout route of a love letter Valentine has written to Julia (and the suddenly dense Valentine's reaction) is hilarious in an Abbott-and-Costello way.

In Verona, Ashley Wickett is saucy and blunt in trying to cool the overheated romantic fantasies of her mistress, Julia (in Lee Stark's fetchingly intense portrayal). In the Milan scenes, Wickett makes a fiercely loyal Silvia, fit to spurn the conceited suitor Thurio (Matt Holzfeind) and upbraid the would-be usurper Proteus. Robert Neal is eminent in both locales, first as Proteus' father, Antonio, then as the Duke of Milan; he gives stunning authority to each role.

It can't be doubted that IRT is to be commended for almost making a silk purse out of a piglet's ear. I believe that the entire Shakespeare canon needs to come to life on the world's stages with a frequency depending on the insight that can be brought to the shows, from the masterpieces on down.

Still, I couldn't help mischievously thinking "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" might be a more interesting play if the description of the minor character Panthino in the program book were the true one. It says he's a "suitor to Antonio."

The lowly Panthino (also Holzfeind) is, of course, servant to Antonio, as noted in the revised insert.  But what fun, in the era of same-sex marriage, to imagine the other possibility.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ISO and its music director are in top form for Classical Series opener, with help from an imaginative guest soloist

The unusual scheduling of September's last weekend for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presumably helped swell the crowd for Saturday's concert in the Hilbert Circle Theatre. It was the only performance of the full program in its home: Thursday morning's curtain-raiser omitted Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, and the full program will be repeated only once.

Lucky folks Sunday afternoon at Avon High School, if that concert in the ISO's new "317 Series" goes as well as this one did!

It was a treat finally to hear Shai Wosner in concert. Among the deprivations of the shortened season in 2012-13 was the cancelllation of Wosner's ISO debut almost exactly two years ago, the victim of the lockout of musicians during contentious contract negotiations.

He's on hand this weekend to play Mozart's Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466. From the first solo entrance in the first movement, you could witness a portrait of true concerto partnership being committed to canvas. I would judge the dynamic level to be mezzo piano, and it worked perfectly to establish a mood of interaction with the orchestra. On display was a consistent preromantic conception of the solo concerto — totally fitting despite the protoromantic nature of the work, the 19th century's favorite among Mozart's 27 piano concertos.

I've been waiting two years to hear Shai Wosner with the ISO.
The use of Beethoven's cadenzas, as well as scrupulously detailed mutterings of anxiety that launch the work and such later turmoil as the fast middle section of the Romanza, ensured that the interpretation would not lean toward rococo style to the slightest degree. How much Mozart's melodies owe to singing should never be scanted, and Wosner capably played that second-movement tune with aria phrasing and a singer's tone.

Coordination between soloist and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski was exemplary throughout. Especially well-judged was the orderly slowing of tempo from the Romanza's pattering episode in the second movement back to the main section.

For an encore, Wosner played Schubert's "Hungarian Melody" with haunting lyricism and a feeling for color that included evoking the instrument of Hungary, the cimbalom, in a way familiar from  Zoltan Kodaly's "Hary Janos" Suite.

Urbanski and the ISO opened the concert with a powerful reading of the "Coriolan" Overture. The contrasts between masculine and feminine elements of the story of the stubborn, vindictive Roman general Coriolanus were placed implacably in the foreground. Beethoven had an uneasy relationship with theater, but was a natural dramatist when he could pose abstract human qualities against each other. This performance captured that quality.

Marketing for these concerts emphasized the encounter of Urbanski and Brahms 4, and that kind of highlighting proved to be apt. Saturday's performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor had breadth and grandeur. Urbanski drew consistent sostenuto phrasing from the orchestra, without allowing a fondness for linked phrases to impair the momentum. Even the trenchant passages in the first movement were well-integrated.

Pretty much the usual midpoint of Urbanski's hand position.
The slow movement was given an affectionate cast, and trimly played except for a few impure horn entrances. Urbanski brought out a playful mood throughout the third movement, with especially delectable woodwind curls placed around buoyant string figures.

For the finale, he elicited from the ISO a distinct character to each variation upon the short repeated theme in the bass (the classic passacaglia form). The orchestra responded by putting forward some of the most transparent scoring to be found in Brahms, on a par with that perennial charmer, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The totality amounted to a structure of immense expressive range and rhetorical panache.

Now a note germane to this concert but apart from the main thread:

From my seat near the front but more off to the right of the podium than usual, I had ample opportunity to appreciate Urbanski's technique. It occurred to me that among the advantages of conducting everything from memory is the naturalness of his baton's high position throughout. Unlike hockey, there are no penalties in symphonic conducting for high-sticking (there are also far fewer fistfights).

In fact, there may be significant payoffs — visibility, clarity, rhythmic precision —from keeping the baton high. I'm estimating that Urbanski's stick is at least shoulder-high 65 percent of the time, chest-high 25 percent, waist-high only about 10 percent. It might be compared to an opera role's tessitura and the voice most suited to it.

If only there were a way to compare conductors' comfort zones for their craft. And I'm betting that Urbanski's physical tessitura is higher than most of his colleagues'. It would be interesting to get comparative videos, because I'm guessing that having the score in front of you means your head and arms necessarily make of the music stand a reference point, no matter how well you know the score.

I'm also impressed with how much dynamic variety he draws from the orchestra standing straight up. Many otherwise competent conductors crouch when they want to lower the volume suddenly: Kelly Corcoran, the able guest conductor brought in by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Friday night at the Schrott Center,  is a croucher. So is the revered former ISO music director Mario Venzago. I tend to suspect crouchers of mere showmanship, but maybe they also crouch in rehearsal, where showmanship is quite beside the point. Orchestra musicians will have to let me know.

Richness of Indianapolis music receives a season-opening demonstration by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

"Every community gets the culture it deserves" was a wise saying that used to get heads nodding in agreement when I was active in the Music Critics Association long ago. It's an appropriation of an old quotation about government.

Applied to culture, and specifically classical music, it seems to answer complaints about the lack of appreciation that musical organizations often feel they get in metropolitan areas that can't accurately plead poverty. By that standard, Indianapolis must be pretty deserving these days, except for the questionable prospects of professional opera here.

Kelly Corcoran has an IU master's degree.
That was brought home to me Friday night as I enjoyed an excellent season-opening concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, which is deciding among three finalists this season who should be its next music director. At the 2014-15 season debut in Butler University's Schrott Center, it got good results with Kelly Corcoran on the podium. She and the orchestra were also enjoying the guest-soloist appearance of Sean Chen, 2013 Classical Fellow of the American Pianists Association, 
whose home is on the Butler campus.

This bright spot on the schedule was surrounded by illumination elsewhere on the calendar — the weekend after the Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and on a weekend bookended by season-launching concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski, its music director.

I couldn't help thinking of other apparently deserving cities that recently have been deprived of topflight professional music-making — notably Atlanta (still in lockout mode) and Minneapolis. That is not meant to be an excuse for complacency here, because the flame requires vigilant attention in an era when it can so easily be snuffed out. But we are pretty lucky nowadays (as well as deserving).

Chen was a soloist of impeccable elan in Beethoven's Piano Concerto in E-flat ("Emperor"). The
Sean Chen had a stellar 2013 here and in Fort Worth.
nickname was oddly left out of public-radio PSAs I heard beforehand, but enough people knew what they would be hearing to fill the hall. There was also, of course, the drawing card of the first of the candidates to succeed Kirk Trevor after his quarter-century on the ICO podium.

Such indelible monikers as "Emperor" are often unsanctioned by the composer. In this case, given the legend that a French officer felt the work's imposing nature justified honoring Napoleon by linking the conquering Corsican to the music, it would have been a painful association for Beethoven in the besieged Austrian capital.

But the performance had an imperial swagger to it, though the Chen-Corcoran partnership countenanced nothing outlandish. The pianist sported clean trills, crisp octaves, good dynamic variety and evenness in all passage work. He displayed admirable strength without wasted energy; wrists and forearms never had to be raised far above the keyboard. The accompaniment had the same virtues, with power bursting forth when needed, yet offering many delicate touches as well, especially in the finale. Called back for an encore, Chen played Leopold Godowsky's transcription of Schubert's "Trout" swimmingly.

The concert was launched with the first installment of composer-in-residence James Aikman's "Peacemakers." It's an attractive piece, with substantial hints of the threats that all peacemakers (Gandhi is specifically invoked in this prelude to the suite) must face. The ICO's lower strings were particularly adept, forceful and unified, at characterizing this music, described by the composer as progressing "from elegiac and retrospective to triumphantly heroic."

Without a soloist or a resident composer as a collaborator, Corcoran evinced her interpretive and technical control in two works after intermission. Aaron Copland's "Music for Movies," a trim and evocative suite drawn from his work in Hollywood circa 1940, was colorful and acutely balanced. The vivid acoustics of the Schrott Center put the ICO winds on their mettle when it came to blending well, and they rose to the challenge.

The concert concluded with a predictably exciting account of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A major ("Italian," this designation being composer-applied).  The woodwinds again provided lively, well-blended playing, the horns' prominence in the third-movement Trio was invigorating,  the strings' clarity in the first movement's counterpoint outstandingly defined. Mendelssohn almost always wore his learning lightly, and it was gratifying to hear a performance in which the range of such skills got full display.

The ICO, long-known for its esprit de corps, conveyed that spirit well throughout this concert. And it thrived with two such well-prepared and inspiring guest musicians to work with. Its fitness is part of what I'm bold to say we deserve in this city.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reality unchecked: Hollywood's tales within tales animate Phoenix Theatre's new show, "Clark Gable Slept Here"

Just as Oscar Wilde described "The Importance of Being Earnest" as "a serious play for trivial people"* Michael McKeever's "Clark Gable Slept Here" might be said to be a heartless play for people with heart.

The heartlessness is amusing, but we are clearly intended to root for values nearly everybody once thought of as enduring. The play's main trouble (it struck me at Thursday's performance at the Phoenix Theatre)  is to plead with us that it has a heart, while the bent of the story line and most of the humor declare otherwise.

The Art Deco sun also rises, casting light on Hollywood shadows.
"Clark Gable Slept Here" cajoles us into clinging to the sort of moral standard Hollywood's movies used to foster, despite the unreliability of what anyone might say. The milieu that has generated those standards for a century tends to regard any hard fact as a mere plot device and any story only as solid as its effectiveness, not its truth.

We are in modern Hollywood, with careers on the line with every contract, every hook-up and every party. An action star, Patrick Zane, has been frolicking in a posh hotel suite with a hired boyfriend, tearing himself away just in time to attend the Golden Globes, where he is up for an award. We never see this icon, whose career has been sculpted to represent heterosexual manliness. Both the audience and the five characters are trapped in the bedroom of an Art Deco penthouse. The opening scene shows us its centerpiece — a rumpled round bed with the naked prostitute, prone and apparently dead, at its foot.
Sheet happens: Hilly, Morgan and Gage ponder body on the floor.

A plausible scenario must be devised. The wit of Zane's steely yet distraught manager, Jarrod "Hilly" Hillard, is too corroded with cynicism and coarsened by hard work to function properly. So he calls away from the Globes gathering a glamorous, hard-boiled fixer named Morgan Wright, who is none too happy to have been interrupted mid-schmooze.

The humorist S. J. Perelman once described how scenario writers are sacrificed in Hollywood like this: "They are tied between the tails of two spirited Caucasian ponies, which are then driven off in opposite directions. This custom is called 'a conference.'"

The forced conference of Hillard and Morgan Wright is complicated by an untrustworthy chambermaid and, surprisingly, by the male hooker. In devising their real-life scenario, they have to keep those Caucasian ponies of fate at bay, calmed with lumps of sugar and a touch of the whip.  Luckily they get an unexpected boost when they tune in to Zane's acceptance speech. But that only raises another problem that can't be revealed here. The common thread is that in Tinseltown no handhold on the real world can be sustained without a gift for fantasy and deception.

No wonder our sympathies are riveted on the hotel manager, Gage Holland, played with nuance by Joshua Coomer. How fortunate that his portrayal avoids the obvious nervous-nellie cliches of a good, dutiful man trapped by sordid circumstance! Gage is just trying to do his job, though he's undermined by awareness that his hotel's sterling reputation requires constant polishing — and always has, dating back to when Clark Gable may have slept there.

The manager is up against the formidable Morgan, stunning and implacable in Jen Johansen's fierce, steady performance, and the more battle-weary, but still manipulative, Hilly, treated almost professorially (that wagging forefinger!) by Charles Goad. It's a characterization that works well, because Hilly has lessons to impart in the midst of the desperate measures he resorts to.

The naivete that turns into steely self-interest in Travis, the call boy, was managed well by Tyler Ostrander. Maria Diaz was intense and, it turns out, properly hammy as the hotel maid.

Jim Ream's set design glories in the crazy angles and curves and the glowing pastels of Art Deco imagery. It conveys the colorful neatness of the Hollywood facade and the woozy menace of what lies behind it.

At the end, the prerecorded performance of "Hooray for Hollywood" by Tim Brickley is aptly knowing, doleful and gently ironic. It confirms the tone of Bryan Fonseca's direction, which faithfully presents a play that wants to be on the side of the angels, but gets all its nourishment at the teat of the City of Angels.

*and also with the modifiers transposed — humorous paradox was meat and drink to him

Sunday, September 21, 2014

IVCI wraps up with an awards ceremony, heaping honors upon gold and silver medalists

Everyone who headed into the Scottish Rite Cathedral Sunday afternoon knew the major results already. The six finalists had been placed in order after their final International Violin Competition of Indianapolis performances Saturday night, and announced about an hour after the concert ended.

The purpose was not only to celebrate their achievement, but also to distribute further prizes recognizing excellence in specific performances over the competition's 17-day course. Moreover, there were lots of plaudits to be distributed, mainly by executive director Glen Kwok, to myriad volunteers and a few short-term hires that enabled the three-person full-time staff to bring off the quadrennial competition.

Jury president Jaime Laredo saluted the participants, who he said (with slight hyperbole) came "from every corner of the earth," with the admission: "You really made it impossible for us." Nonetheless, the well-established judging procedure, which enjoins jurors not to discuss participants, basing rankings on the compilation of individual scores over the competition's three rounds, yielded results worth defending, though some online carping was soon to be encountered about the fact that first place went to a Laredo student.

Here are the basic awards announced Saturday night upon completion of the romantic/post-romantic concerto final round and bestowed Sunday:

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fifth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

The new  gold medalist was also honored for concerto performance.
Cho picked up another $5,000 for best performance of a romantic or post-romantic concerto, based on the way she played the Erich Korngold Violin Concerto Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. She also earned $1,000 for best performance of a Bach work and $500 for placing third in the "best Paganini caprice" category; two Paganini caprices were required in the preliminary round, which began Sept. 7. (The top prize for a Paganini performance went to semifinalist Nancy Zhou [$1,000]; the second-place award was presented to semifinalist Ayana Tsuji [$750].)

Lark, the highest-ranked American in the competition since Ida Kavafian also won the silver medal in the first competition (1982), won two special awards: for best performance of the commissioned required work, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Fantasy for Solo Violin, and best performance of a Eugene Ysaye solo sonata. Her reprise performance of No. 5 was among the musical selections presented as part of the awards ceremony Sunday. Ysaye was the most influential teacher of Josef Gingold, Indiana University distinguished professor and founder of the competition.

Fifth-place laureate Yoo Jin Jang won the $1,000 award for best performance of a sonata other than Beethoven for her playing of John Corigliano's Sonata in the semifinal round. The award for best performance of a Beethoven sonata went to fourth-place laureate Dami Kim, shared with pianist Nelson Padgett ($1,000 each).

In the preliminary round, a two-movement Mozart sonata was required of all participants. The award for the best performance went to bronze medalist Ji Young Lim and pianist Rohan De Silva ($1,000 each).

The $2,500 award for best performance of a classical concerto (all by Mozart this year) went to Kim for the Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 as played Thursday at the University of Indianapolis with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra accompanying.

Cho also received a gold-mounted Tourte-Voirin model Berg bow from Michael F. Duff and the use for four years of the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius violin.

The 10 semifinalists not passed on to the final round received $1,000 each.

Other recognitions included the Alice M. Ross Award for  Distinguished Volunteer to Maureen Purcell, who was  credited helping to solve problems "ranging from wardrobe failures to water leaks."

At the reception that followed, Cho told me that her competition highlight was her performance of the Korngold concerto, because "I felt relaxed by then, and I could just play it without feeling any stress."

I missed that performance, but Cho had shown few signs of being nervous or in any sense constrained in her earlier appearances. Her performance of the Zwilich Fantasy was one of the most passionate I heard, freely imagined and given the sort of abandon that made it seem almost improvised. Her first Prokofiev sonata had as much individuality and brooding intensity as any of the non-Beethoven sonatas I heard.

Her performance of Paganini's eleventh caprice in the preliminary round was my second favorite in the abundant renditions of that piece, behind semifinalist Stephen Kim's.  She seems an artist fully formed and capable of extending the reputation of the IVCI over the next four years.

[Photo credit: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.,]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis concludes with the announcement of the gold medal, five other awards

The moment everyone has been waiting for: the announcement of the awards in the 16-day competition. Names and award titles are followed by age, country, and cash prizes:
2014 IVCI gold medalist Jinjoo Cho

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000. (She is the highest-ranking American in nine competitions since Ida Kavafian won the silver medal in 1982, the IVCI's first year.)

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fiftth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

 [The following review of Saturday's concert was written before I knew the competition results]

The second night  of romantic/modern concerto finals at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis presented three young South Korean women to a large, enthusiastic audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The exclusivity of national origin in Saturday's final simply carried through a theme evident in the initial field of 37 participants: Women were dominant, and South Koreans were heavily represented among them.

With Joel Smirnoff, an eminent violinist-turned-conductor on the podium, all three contestants enjoyed sympathetic, knowledgeable support by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. That presumably accounted for the generally superlative level of these performances, along with, of course, the thorough preparation and conscientious study that enable a participant in this competition to get to the final stage.

I was most impressed with Ji Young Lim's account of Brahms' Concerto in D major, op. 77. Momentary burbles in the violin's initial statement were soon put behind her. The performance gained confidence, leading to an incisively played cadenza and a strong finish well-coordinated with the orchestra. She made the second-movement melody her own, projecting the attractive personality I first became aware of in the preliminaries, where her Bach and Paganini selections were among the most individualized I heard.

The finale had the jollity suggested in the tempo indication. Lim's playing was resilient, bouncy and bold. The exciting switch to triple meter near the end brought forth heightened playing that was both vigorous and sweet.

Just as much personality was invested by Yoo Jin Jang in her performance of Tchaikovsky's Concerto in D major, op. 35.  Her darker tone, compared to Lim's, immediately suited the first movement.  Her phrasing was flexible but not so far as to make her partnership with the orchestra challenging. She came close, however, rushing some of the phrases the violin sets against pulsating staccato woodwinds.

Nonetheless, she told a story, even in passagework. The varying speeds with which she dispatched the cadenza made it particularly interesting.  In the second movement, she sank wholeheartedly into its concise song, then effected a teasing introduction to an incredibly fast finale. She made the contrasting theme slow and heavy, peasantlike. But every time the main material returned she was off to the races. Her agility never flagged in this sizzling performance.

After intermission, Dami Kim played Sibelius' sometimes dour, sometimes intensely high-spirited Concerto in D minor, op. 47. Her first-movement cadenza had the same heightened characterization as Lim's had in the Brahms concerto.  The haunted lyricism of the slow movement seemed to suit her well. The orchestra provided a fine setting for this Adagio di molto, with Smirnoff drawing a well-managed crescendo at the movement's emotional peak.

Her manner in the finale sort of spoiled the performance for me. There was some off-pitch playing, perhaps related to the soloist's frenetic manner.  The passion in this music has a cool side that didn't seem to interest Kim. This was a forceful interpretation, seemingly coaxed out by the predominance of dark orchestral colors, that made of this exhilarating music an Arctic tragedy.

(Photo credit: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr., www,