Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
by Michael J. Moran
The first half of the third “Masterworks” program in the current HSO season offered a historical survey of music for string orchestra over several centuries. It played to the strengths of guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet.
The program opened with Pachelbel’s Canon, likely written around 1694 but lost until 1919, which, for all its familiarity, is rarely performed in concert. The Hartford string section gave it a warm, affectionate reading at a steady, flowing tempo. A smaller ensemble then backed HSO principal violist Michael Wheeler in Telemann’s 1720 Concerto in G for Viola and Strings. Wheeler played this tuneful and appealing showpiece with a sweet, mellifluous tone that earned him enthusiastic applause from the audience and his colleagues alike. Orchestra keyboardist Margreet Francis gave discreet support on harpsichord continuo in both works.
The string ensemble expanded again for a sumptuous account of Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Premiered in 1910, the Fantasia opens and closes with a simple 1567 melody by Elizabethan composer Tallis and features a string quartet and a larger group which build to a rhapsodic climax in counterpoint with the full string orchestra. Smirnoff balanced these antiphonal forces with passion and precision.
The full orchestra appeared after intermission for a terrific performance of Tchaikovsky’s seldom heard Symphony No. 1, called “Winter Dreams” by the fledgling composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes episodic structure and an overly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. The woodwind, brass, and percussion sounded supercharged by their earlier rest period, with impressive solo turns by oboist Stephen Wade in the dreamy “Adagio Cantabile,” principal flutist Greig Shearer in the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo,” and bassoonist Louis Lazzerini in the opening and closing movements.
Smirnoff brought a lively and engaging stage presence to Hartford, earning the affection and respect of both his fellow musicians and an appreciative audience. A return invitation to the Belding podium would clearly seem well advised.