'Greetings from Spain' privileges the orchestral harp in more ways than one

 Whatever the pure spectacle on offer with this weekend's program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, all the stars above Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night seemed aligned to celebrate principal harpist Diane Evans.

Diane Evans will join the Oberlin faculty.

She's retiring after 40 seasons in that position, as was pointed out in the statement preceding the announcement that she is this year's winner of the Patch Award. That's the annual honor given to an ISO member whose musicianship and musical good citizenship is worth distinction. (The award honors Renato Pacini, who had a 60-year ISO career, ending in 1998, including posts as associate conductor and assistant principal first violin.)

Her charming spotlight in the video series of individualized member portraits made several years ago was shown again before the second half. The aura that the award presentation had called up before the music started took on new luster. In that interview, supplemented by her playing, she noted that early in her career how she performed was all about her, but "now it's about the audience." A veteran's values!

Further evidence it was her evening: Threaded throughout the program were five works including the harp, the instrument that joined the orchestra in the early 19th century and was heavily favored by French composers. "It is remarkable how rarely French composers deprived themselves of the instrument," says Norman Del Mar in The Anchor Companion to the Orchestra, "mostly indeed writing for two harps in works for larger orchestras."

Yet the centerpiece is the Spaniard Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," giving a firm home base to a

Jun Märkl, ISO artistic advisor, conducts season's last two classical programs.

program titled "Greetings from Spain." For that, the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear is the weekend's soloist. He and conductor Jun Märkl worked well together. The music is less purely picturesque than the section titles — In the Gardens of the Generalife, A Distant Dance, and In the Gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba — might suggest. 

The piece is about atmosphere, folk-music roots and characteristic rhythms. There are many pungent moments, and the colors vary from the pastels emphasized in some performances to rich oil hues. These aspects got a strong, blended display from orchestra and soloist, whose crystalline octaves high in the treble shone.

A two-harp section is used, predictably, in music by French composers who were enchanted by Spain and eager to draw upon Iberian dance forms. The vehicles are well-known and sometimes were features of the older kind of symphonic pops concerts. But they have stature worth their inclusion in the mainstream. 

The central European tradition has accustomed us to the Browningesque dictum that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" French and Spanish composers often say, in effect, Well, heaven can wait. Music that's of the earth, earthy, can probe depths all its own. Love calls us to the things of this world, after all. Being observant and receptive to the mundane may offer transcendent experiences, too.

Friday's concert opened with a dashing run through Chabrier's "Espana," hobbled a bit by some imprecision in the violins' countermelody to the second theme. This piece has a more well-knit texture than its popularity and easy appeal might suggest, especially since the main theme was later adapted for Perry Como's hit song, "Hot Diggity."

Maurice Ravel's more patrician character sketch, "Alborada del Gracioso," quickly affirmed its higher stature. Its middle section included another example of bassoonist Ivy Ringel's gift for cunning portrait-painting. 

After intermission came a broader-based evocation of Spain from Ravel in "Rapsodie Espagnole." Each vivid section was exquisitely balanced, and the first three had beautifully shaped endings. In the finale, "Feria," in the middle of its splashy episodes, the slow-tempo plaintiveness was enchanting and unhurried under Märkl's baton. Percussion and brass gloried in the movement's main sections.

Another bout of excitement, a well-known crowd-pleaser, got the job done again as a program finale. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" was finely put together, from its vivid ensembles to its characterful solos, especially those of the ISO concertmaster, Kevin Lin.

The Friday concert, to be repeated in a few hours, marks a particular high point in the thematic programming the ISO has offered Classical Series patrons this season. For color and excitement, "Greetings from Spain" just about tops them all.


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