through October 23, 2011
by Michael J. Moran
In her “Masterworks” series debut as their first female and youngest Music Director, 34-year-old Taiwan-born conductor Carolyn Kuan led the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in a program that demonstrated her mastery of the Germanic core of the standard repertoire.
Written in 1794-1795, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19, reflected the classical style of Mozart’s late concertos, but its high spirits foreshadowed the mature Beethoven, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra in the Adagio foretold its more famous counterpart in the Fourth Concerto.
The boyish looks of the 21-year-old soloist from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Behzod Abduraimov, belied his interpretive maturity. He balanced measured tempos in the first two movements with a vigorous first movement cadenza and a romp through the final Rondo to achieve a performance of classical poise and grace.
After intermission, Kuan directed an impassioned account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, whose nickname, the “Titan,” has stuck although the composer stopped using it after several early performances. Kuan’s flexible tempos and dynamics heightened dramatic contrasts and accentuated the varied roots of Mahler’s inspiration, from Viennese ballrooms to klezmer bands in the third movement alone. Balances were transparent throughout the piece, so that the triangle and the harp, for example, could be clearly heard even in the loudest passages.
The orchestra has never sounded better. Though the horns in particular were challenged at times in the Mahler, they also turned in some of the evening’s finest playing in the first and last movements. Strings, woodwinds, and percussion were consistently impressive, and all the musicians seemed inspired by their charismatic new Maestra to play their best.
The audience was excited not only by Kuan’s physical energy and engaging personality, but by her spoken introduction to the Mahler, with musical examples played by the orchestra. These were brief but pointed, as when she illustrated repeating themes and Mahler’s belief that a symphony was a “world that must contain everything.”
This positive outreach to her community augurs well not only for the new HSO season but for the hopefully long duration of Kuan’s tenure in Hartford.