Saturday, February 2, 2019

Italian conductor makes US debut here with program of Respighi, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich

Daniele Rustioni displayed exuberance and discipline in US debut.
Last spring after an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert, I modulated my overall praise of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, one of his most popular works, with some quibbles about parts of it, starting with the first movement. I can be more wholehearted about the Third (in A minor, op. 44), though it doesn't reach the totally disarming, energetic heights of the Second.

The A minor puts a nice cap on the full ISO program this weekend. The second performance will be at 7 tonight. Guest conductor Daniele Rustioni, appearing in the United States for the first time here this weekend, conducted Ottorino Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" to open the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert Friday; filling out the first half was Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello concerto no. 21 in E-flat, op. 107, with Julian Steckel the soloist.

The ISO and Rustioni had the opportunity to prepare the Rachmaninoff symphony as the sole work on Thursday's Coffee Classical Concert. The score has some tricky rhythmic matters for musicians to navigate amid the sort of transparency that Rachmaninoff didn't command in earlier works for orchestra. This meant for a few shaky moments, evanescent as bubbles, in a generally splendid reading Friday.

The A minor stems from 1935-36, and my preference for it has to do with that late-refined transparency and the way the restless, soul-stirring quality of the Russian composer's best music in this work seems less freely indulged and more subject to bold shadings and abrupt inflections. Those seem to turn Rachmaninoff into something of a modernist-at-a-distance. The surprises pop up initially in the first of three movements, but under the control Rustioni evinced, everything flowed without jolts.

Guest concertmaster Yuna Lee's brief solos were a highlight of the second movement, as was the deft generation of the almost elfin "scherzo" episode that takes over the movement's second half before yielding to a compact reminder of how it all started. Tempo flexibility was a hallmark of the well-structured finale, with such brief, germane inspirations as the "Dies irae" reference (an old friend of the composer's) and a tidy fugal section. The energy accumulates without wasted motion in an assertive, brassy coda.  Friday's audience was charmed by the dash and brilliance of that conclusion. Rustioni shared the acclaim generously with the orchestra, soloist by soloist, section by section.

Julian Steckel brought plenty of brio to the diverse demands of Shostakovich.
To open the program with "The Fountains of Rome" allowed the audience an introduction to the effusive conductor's management of orchestral color. The views of four Roman fountains at different times of day were splendidly portrayed. The expressive import of dawn's hints (the Fountain of Valle Giulia) yielding to the illumination of full morning (the Triton Fountain) was vivid. "The Fountain of Trevi" basked in a midday glare that evoked its close tone-poem relatives in "The Pines of Rome" and "Roman Festivals." The hush of dusk completed the four-part picture hauntingly with the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset.

German cellist Julian Steckel completes the ISO guest list this weekend. Friday, in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, his playing was rightly heavy with emotion, but never leaden. That stood out especially in the lyrical second movement, which gathers up strength from the vigorous first movement — exceptionally well-coordinated Friday — to shape the work's summit: a substantial solo cadenza. Its feather-soft opening seemed to have a steel quill at its center. The episode rose to a deftly tossed-off virtuoso climax, featuring lots of precise fingerwork and some spotlessly struck passages in harmonics. These helped to emphasize the eerie isolation of the solo instrument before the orchestra, attentively guided by Rustioni, resumed its simpatico partnership with him in the finale.

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