Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mario Venzago's much-anticipated return to the ISO was worth waiting for, but why did we have to?

Standing ovations have become all too automatic at the end of performances, and they are sometimes oddly brief.

So it was a mark of special regard that the audience at Friday night's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert was on its feet applauding Mario Venzago at both beginning and end. The sustained ovations rang the rafters of Hilbert Circle Theatre at a level seldom heard there, laced with whoops, whistles and cheering.
Mario Venzago never seems to conduct a meaningless phrase.

The ISO's sixth music director (2002-2009) is in town this weekend to conduct the ensemble for the first time since before negotiations on a new contract broke down, apparently as the result of the previous administration's refusal to respond to Venzago's proposals to extend his stay at the artistic helm of the 83-year-old orchestra.

The program of music by Glazunov, Mahler and Schumann was capped by a private champagne party in  the Wood Room to unveil a new portrait of the 65-year-old Swiss conductor. Supported by a special fund-raising campaign, the painting soon will join other portraits of the ISO's former music directors in the extended second-floor lobby.

What is special about the way Venzago makes music? Is the evident rapport he has with both concertgoers and ISO musicians more than a matter of personal warmth and amiability?  It certainly seems so, as well-stocked in those qualities as Venzago clearly is.

I could start with the encore, which Venzago charmingly introduced, sketching in the heart-rending scenario that the composer fleshed out in purely instrumental terms.  The piece is Sibelius' "Valse triste," which was also the encore of a concert about a month ago marking a much sadder milestone for an American symphony orchestra. It was the work Osmo Vanska chose by his Finnish countryman at the conclusion of an "unofficial" Minnesota Orchestra concert —  a farewell tribute to an organization Vanska had raised to a new artistic level, many commentators agree, before a continuing yearlong lockout prompted the music director's resignation and jeopardized that ensemble's future.

Vanska led an elegiac performance — an understandable emphasis, given the occasion. Though it might be slightly unfair to compare live streaming audio to a concert performance, what distinguished Venzago's interpretation is that it was so multifaceted. It had drama, color and a chiaroscuro of feeling. Phrasing was shapely and imbued with the backstory's intimacy and sense of irretrievable loss. The way the ISO played it Friday night, you could live in the little, closed-in world of this composition for several minutes gladly, despite its gloomy cast.

The concert opened with Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), an early work by Mahler that survived his creative self-censorship to be repurposed as the first movement of Symphony No. 2 in D minor ("Resurrection").  That work, with its choral finale, has moved audiences to tears or had them virtually levitating by its final pages.

Totenfeier takes a more straightforward approach to the funeral march, declining to drum the deceased so tragically into the grave. The contrasting material — of consolation and eternal rest (what Venzago terms "angel music") and of wild fits of grieving and protest — is aligned with the march as a way of filling in the picture. Attitudinizing about death is far from Mahler's concept, as Venzago understands it and communicated it to us through the orchestra.

When I interviewed Venzago Thursday, he several times described Totenfeier as a very naive piece. As I listened to it Friday night, it was hard to understand how the negative connotations that readily attach to the word "naive" might fit what sounded like a well-crafted piece, far from simple in its orchestration. Any derivativeness that clings to it is learned in its Brucknerian expansiveness, its Lisztian gestural thrust and its woodsy, mystical snatches of melody (evoking somewhat the "Forest Murmurs" of Wagner's "Siegfried"). Where's the naivete?

Then it dawned on me that Venzago, drawing upon his deep German culture, was using the word in the manner of Friedrich Schiller, whose "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" (1795) is one of the great essays in Romanticism, and almost certainly known to Venzago.  To Schiller, whose idealism is most familiar to posterity through Beethoven's use of "An die Freude" in the Ninth Symphony, naive attraction in art is based upon nature (rocks and lightning as well as trees and foxes), children, farmers and shepherds. It generates unself-conscious, not self-divided, art.

Culture inevitably moves art to a self-conscious stage full of inner conflicts — not a tragic development, as Schiller sees it, because it provides the tools to move once again to unity. "The goal toward which man strives by means of infinitely higher than that which he reaches by means of nature," Schiller writes.

Portrait of Venzago by Uwe Grabner.
Mahler, those who know his music well must realize, created much of his magnificent art as a "sentimental" artist, though aspiring quite explicitly to the Schillerian goal in the second, third, fourth and eighth symphonies. And, judging from the way Venzago and the ISO performed Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, the seriously self-divided Schumann was in a sense trapped on the sentimental side. Any aspiration to move beyond was seriously undercut by his conflicted  temperament.

Venzago's penchant for flexibility of tempo, for phrases that breathe in sync with the arcs they trace, was fully in evidence here, starting with the first movement.  The reverie aspect of Schumann was indulged with a lovely sense of color in the second movement. Quite convincingly, a really regular pulse didn't emerge till the main section of the Scherzo. The Trio just floated, however, and the composer's self-description as the contrasting characters of Florestan (emotion) and Eusebius (reason) couldn't have been clearer in this movement. The finale found new ways to be exciting without locking into the rip-roaring manner sometimes heard in performances of the Schumann Fourth, as if the torrential coda were the whole point of the piece.

For this weekend's concerts, the guest soloist was hired before Venzago, so the former music director  had no part in the selection of Vadim Gluzman, a concert violinist who has made a good impression here in the past, or the work that featured him, Alexander Glazunov's Concerto in A minor, op. 82.  You would never know that from the smooth way they worked together. The three connected movements found the new partnership both durable and flexible.

Venzago's sensitivity to tempo fluctuation suited Gluzman's free, almost offhand interpretation well, especially in the first two movements, with their abundance of sweets and daydreams.  The robust finale, given backbone immediately with a brassy fanfare, had plenty of bounce and character. Gluzman seemed much more at home in this idiom than he did in the Bach encore he offered, which he played in a precious, overinflected style.

It was hard to leave a concert with so much of the miraculous about it and suppress the feeling that in 2009 the ISO threw away a chance to ascend to greatness. A talented tyro with insights of his own has succeeded Venzago, but the indelible feeling of brothers-in-arms (OK, siblings-in-arms) and the impress of significance in every phrase sounded by this orchestra under Venzago's baton are signs of  lost opportunity. Some regular involvement by this maestro in the ISO's future may compensate for such a loss, but only partially. Too much is irrecoverable, and time only goes in one direction.