Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mario Venzago may be taking more than a sentimental jouney this weekend

It became close to scandalous when Mario Venzago was messily separated from the music directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra four years ago last summer.

Mario Venzago has been rapturously received.
But with a different CEO and altered board leadership, the ISO is formally admitting Venzago into its official history Friday when it unveils a portrait of him to honor his tenure as its sixth music director (2002-2009). The occasion is his return to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, with full-length evening concerts Friday and Saturday.

Interviewed  at the Conrad Hotel downtown, Venzago looked refreshed and relaxed a few hours after the historic reunion opened with a Classical Coffee Concert.  The traditionally abbreviated program left out Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, but included the other two pieces also to be heard in the evening concerts: Glazunov's Violin Concerto, with soloist Vadim Gluzman, and Mahler's Totenfeier.

The last work may look more unfamiliar to most than the Glazunov piece, but in fact it's an early version of the opening movement of Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Resurrection"). "It is not a worked-out piece," Venzago said. "You have to make decisions and changes." Those don't involve notes, but phrasing, tempo and dynamics — the kinds of variables that crucially affect the character of a composition in performance.

The biggest mistake a conductor can make with Totenfeier, according to Venzago, is to interpret
it like a mature Mahler work. "I try to make it like a Liszt symphonic poem," he said. "It's Mahler looked at through an early glass — a very naive piece."

As certain as he is of the nature of the music he conducts, Venzago has had ample reason to be unsure what this visit truly means. It's his first since management's refusal to negotiate a new contract with him led to his dismissal. He last conducted the ISO in May 2009 in a joint production with Indianapolis Opera of "Das Rheingold."

"At the beginning of the week, I did not know what to  expect," the  Swiss conductor admitted.  "Was this a farewell, or the first step into something new?" At this point, Venzago is inclined toward the latter: The musicians gave him a standing ovation at the first rehearsal, and he reported the Thursday audience response was "very warm —  it was the right signal to come back. And I would very much like to come back with a certain regularity."

No relationship that would build upon fond memories of Venzago's brutally interrupted time here has been discussed with ISO management, and the 65-year-old maestro has never met his successor, Krzysztof Urbanski, who is less than half his age. But he was heartened not only by the ISO musicians' initial enthusiasm, but also by their  responsiveness in rehearsal: "The way we play Schumann and Mahler is my old way, and we continued to work as we had before," he said. "It was like there was not such a big gap in time. I heard they liked to come back to these patterns: tempo freedom, intonation, balance, articulation."

There were some things for both sides to get used to. Urbanski favors a different seating arrangement:  basses ranged along the rear of the stage, the violas to his right and the cellos inside.  As a matter of courtesy, Venzago didn't tamper with it, but it has presented balance challenges to him. And the ISO string players had to reacquaint themselves with their former maestro's penchant for selectively applied vibrato. "Until the 20th century,  collective vibrato was never used," he said.  "It's like pouring ketchup over everything." Scaling back vibrato "is difficult for intonation, because the vibrato helps cover pitch problems, but we have learned to love the pure sound. ... You can seduce them to many possibilities!"

He declined to compare the two American orchestras he knows best — Indianapolis and Baltimore — but he admires Baltimore's big hall. The Maryland orchestra provided a lifeline to his American career after the ISO abruptly cut off ties. In the aftermath, he beefed up his European career as well, becoming principal conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra in his homeland in 2011, one year after he got a similar post with England's Northern Sinfonia. He's doing more opera, and is also frequently on podiums in Finland, Denmark and Germany.

His love for the Bern job offers some insight into the partial failure of his Indianapolis sojourn. "I have become an old-fashioned music director," he said. In the Swiss city, he has a home, and goes to performances he doesn't conduct: "I live with my orchestra. It's really touchable."

He warmed to his theme: "I like the Indianapolis people and the orchestra, but I never felt at home in this country. I couldn't live here. Bern is my country, my language, my cultural base. It's not about my career: you have to structure an American career differently. If I can be so connected with Baltimore and Indianapolis, it would be wonderful to have these two places."

But an ongoing relationship is the only sort Venzago finds really nurturing.  "It's then effective what I can do —  it can profit them, and I can learn.  It's give and take, learn and teach."

Of course he knows that financial problems are a serious factor in musical life all over ("in this country you feel it the next day; in Europe it takes a little while"), as is the quality of education and the threatened cohesiveness of the family unit when it comes to spending leisure time together.

"Orchestra life is near connected to social life," he said. "If society changes, we also have to change. We have to become flexible without becoming cheap, because if we sell our soul, we have no charisma. Then every big football kid has more charisma than we do," Venzago said, laughing.

The charisma of symphony orchestras will not soon be depleted if Venzago has anything to say about it. Having come through a time of trial but still not sure what survival as an artistic partnership may mean, he looks back on his ISO tenure without bitterness, though with the rueful sense that he barely averted disaster: "You get used to changes like this, but the way it was done could have destroyed my reputation, my market value — all that I have built before would be destroyed."

His faith in his Hoosier orchestra remained, however: "I knew we would be looking for each other, like a marriage that sometimes needs time in between. Are we on different landscapes now?  Did we travel to opposite goals and destinations? I feel we are very early in understanding each other, but we still have the same fire. I wish this orchestra could come back to big visions."