Thursday, July 18, 2013

At Garfield Park, the ISO plays the second concert of its revived outdoor Indy Parks series

The evening cooled off only slightly, but a beautiful sky overhead and the sounds of nature (well, OK, mainly cicadas) brought synesthetic pleasure to the setting for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's concert Wednesday night at Garfield Park.

 Francesco Lecce-Chong and ISO respond to applause at Garfield Park.
Guest conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, led a well-arranged  program of familiar music for a crowd that spilled out of the MacAllister Amphitheatre permanent seats onto the sloping lawn.  Unlike so many conductors who speak from the podium, Lecce-Chong was never long-winded in his oral program notes; he knew what he wanted to say about each piece and proceeded to deliver the goods concisely before turning around to face the music.

And the music, given the need to amplify the  orchestra, was fairly true to natural orchestral sound, always a welcome but hardly predictable aspect of outdoor concerts. To be sure, in the curtain-raiser, an arrangement of the Overture to Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," the strings had a synthesized veneer that put them at a sonic disadvantage, while the winds, brass in particular, came through as if unfiltered.

The impression vanished with the opening movement of Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," when the string sections, not having to vie with the wind instruments, sounded more like their real selves. And their playing was robust and neatly phrased.

The well-designed program wrapped up its first third, all of it loosely associated with day's end, with the Nocturne from Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Lecce-Chong's remarks beforehand were especially apt here, setting the context well, and the horns followed through with some gently sparkling playing.

ISO horn section warms up before Wednesday's concert.
I wasn't fond of Maurice Peress's arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's music to "West Side Story" in an overture that was slick, albeit effective for programs like this one. The "mambo" excerpt made a fitting climax, complete with "Mambo!" shouts from the musicians. Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is more forgiving of glitzy treatment, which it got in Harry Simeone's arrangement. The famously long-breathed tune soared to an upper-register pinnacle, with a little bit of gilding the lily when the famous concluding chords of Stravinsky's "Firebird" were quoted.

In between Peress-Bernstein and Simeone-Porter came a touching, nuanced performance of George Gershwin's "Lullaby" for string orchestra. Its placement on the largely flashy program was indicative of the good taste of Lecce-Chong's "set list."   So was the character-rich excerpting of the second suite from Bizet's 'Carmen," in which portraits of Carmen ("Habanera"), Micaela ("Nocturne') and Escamillo ("Toreador's Song") were vivid — and notable for soloing from Marvin Perry II (trumpet) and assistant concertmaster Christal Phelps Steele (violin). The performance delivered maximum excitement to conclude in the accelerating "Gypsy Dance" (Danse Boheme), which earned the ISO a partial standing ovation.

That audience tribute became full-fledged at the conclusion of "Malambo" from Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia."  Paired hand claps, cued by the conductor turning to face the audience, punctuated this showcase of heavily underlined dance rhythms. They permeated a short, repetitive theme that became tiring only in the best sense: evoking pictures of the competing Argentine cowboys whose macho dancing inspired the composer. At the end of a hot day,  experiencing such exertion vicariously seemed just what the crowd wanted.

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