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Mozart piano concerto by ISO is outstanding

02.21.09
Jonathan Biss
Indianapolis Star

A meeting of young minds in one of Mozart's most beloved piano concertos put Friday night's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert near the top of a heap of fine concerto-centered programs heard this season at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Guest conductor Jakub Hrusa, music director designate of the Prague Philharmonia in his native Czech Republic, and Bloomington-born Jonathan Biss were on the same wavelength throughout the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467. The ISO was there, too, nearly all the time.

But it was the individuality, technical polish and emotional restraint of Biss' interpretation of the solo part that distinguished the performance.

He handled the problem of the first movement imaginatively: Some pianists fumble the "Allegro maestoso" marking, because only some of the material is conventionally majestic. Biss caught the score's shifting moods without getting operatic about it. Calmness reigned over the whole, yet it didn't lack zest or seem disengaged.

In Biss' hands, the second movement fed off the reflective aspects of the first. And what was most impressive about the finale is how he inflected the rapid tempo with hints of hesitation at just the right moments.

The concerto, which drew thunderous applause and an encore, the Andante movement from Mozart's Sonata in C major, K. 545, was flanked by the music of two Czech giants. To start with, there was Smetana's "Sarka," one of six tone poems from the set called "Ma Vlast." It's translated sometimes as "My Country" or "My Homeland."

As such, "Sarka" definitely comes from the department of homeland insecurity. Out of Czech folklore the composer put a horrifying tale of female revenge upon men's faithlessness into picturesque form. Hrusa drew from the orchestra an almost cinematic degree of flow, savage energy and color.

The bloody-minded heroine of the title has her Amazon forces entrap armed men, who think they're rescuing her, and slaughter them. The clarinet must characterize the boldness and the wiles of Sarka, and the ISO's David Bellman presented a riveting portrayal.

The little-known Dvorak Symphony No. 5 in F major took up the second half. Like even his greatest symphonies, this one had bland transitional passages, short-breathed phrasing and, even when the materials all fit, conspicuous welds.

Dvorak's mastery was foreshadowed in the slow movement. The finale, despite Hrusa's suave, committed guidance, resisted for too long coming