Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 11–14, 2012
by Michael J. Moran
Leave it to the programming genius of Carolyn Kuan not only to upend tradition by launching her second season as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the season closer at Tanglewood every summer) but to make practical use of the same vocal forces to introduce an unfamiliar work to local audiences which reflects her own Chinese heritage.
The “Yellow River Cantata” was written in 1939 by Xian Xinghai in the Chinese city of Yanan, partly as settings of poems by Guang Weiran celebrating the river, and partly in defiance of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. Though Xian had studied in Paris with D’Indy and Dukas for several years, the music sounds most inspired by Soviet socialist realism.
But its use of Chinese folk idioms and of several Chinese traditional instruments makes for a colorful half-hour score which drew a stirring performance from the orchestra, the Hartford Chorale, the Farmington High School Chamber Singers, the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford, and three vocal soloists, of whom Chinese-born baritone Yunpeng Wang made the strongest impression.
The account of Beethoven’s Ninth that followed intermission was blazing and driven, in the tradition established by Arturo Toscanini. The first movement was intense and relentless, and there was no easing off of tension in the scherzo second movement, including a rapid-fire trio section. The third movement, though taken at a flowing tempo, achieved a rapturous calm before the high drama of the finale, in which the orchestra was joined by the three choruses and four vocal soloists.
Wang was again the standout singer, but soprano Yahan Chen, mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, and tenor Laurence Broderick also acquitted them well. The choruses did fine work in both pieces, singing with clarity, precision, and enthusiasm, and blending well with each other and the soloists. English translations of the texts were helpfully projected over the stage.
The focus of both works on global harmony among peoples served not only as a grand opening statement for the HSO’s new season but as a timely message in a divisive political season.