Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 5, 2011

Holiday Masterworks

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through December 4, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

As Music Director of the Hartford Chorale since 2006, Richard Coffey was no stranger to the Hartford Symphony when he led the orchestra in an imaginative program of three “Holiday Masterworks,” the third program in their 2011-2012 “Masterworks” concert series.

Even with no apparent holiday connection, a lively reading of Glinka’s exuberant “Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla” opened the concert on an appropriately festive note. Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 1 from The Nutcracker” was a more familiar but always welcome holiday treat, especially in the HSO’s glistening account. From the delicate celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the sweeping harp in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” every musician played with obvious affection for each movement at Maestro Coffey’s ideally balanced tempos. A snowflake projected across the wall behind the stage added another nice seasonal touch.
After intermission the orchestra was joined by the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and three soloists in the HSO’s first ever performance of the rarely heard Christmas cantata “Hodie” (This Day) by Vaughan Williams. Dating from 1954, this hour-long piece was the composer’s last major choral-orchestral work. Its 16 short movements alternate between settings of Biblical texts about the Christmas story for children’s chorus and settings of poems by various authors for mixed combinations of chorus and soloists.

The performance by all forces was brilliant. The very full orchestra reveled in the music’s wide range of moods and sonorities, from the grandeur of the opening chorus to the jubilant finale. Hushed settings of “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy and a “Pastoral” by George Herbert were the emotional heart of the piece, and both were movingly sung by baritone Eric Downs. Tenor Eric Barry was appealing of voice and clear of diction, and soprano Stephanie Gilbert’s singing was radiant. The adult choristers were magnificent throughout, while the children sang with purity and charm. 

Full texts were included in the program book, but they would have been easier to follow with projected subtitles. Still, the audience was clearly grateful to hear a thrilling new discovery by a 20th century master.