Hartford Symphony Orchestra
December 12–15, 2013
by Michael J. Moran
Such was the timing of winter storm Electra that it forced a rare cancellation of the HSO’s Saturday evening performance of this program, featuring two familiar masterpieces and a relative rarity which should be better known. But luckily for HSO audiences, their hard-working orchestra plays each program four times, mostly in the clear, resonant acoustics of the Bushnell’s intimate Belding Theater.
As Electra gave way to clearing skies Sunday afternoon, the audience was greeted with a warm bath of springtime as a radiant account of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves opened the program. Returning guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet, was clearly in his element with the mostly string ensemble. Principal harpist Susan Knapp Thomas and principal flute Greig Shearer made distinguished solo contributions.
Popular local violinist Sirena Huang was the brilliant soloist in a rhapsodic performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Now a sophomore at the Juilliard School, Huang grew up in South Windsor, and this was her ninth appearance with the HSO. Her violin tone throughout this demanding piece was rich, powerful, and sensitively shaded, from the hushed opening notes of the dramatic first movement to the dazzling cadenza only minutes later. Smirnoff maintained an ideal balance between orchestra and soloist through the lush Adagio movement and an amusingly lumbering finale.
Huang introduced a charming but technically challenging encore as a recent Chinese composition called “Enchanted Mountain Scenery,” in which she said “a man enjoys a trip to the mountains and then gets a little drunk” (the tipsy point was very clear in her playing).
Intermission was followed by a lively rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed “Polish” for its finale in polonaise rhythm. Like his first symphony, which Smirnoff conducted on his last HSO visit a year ago, the third is far less known than Tchaikovsky’s fourth-sixth symphonies, but its five movements offer no fewer memorable tunes than any of this master melodist’s most beloved works. Orchestra and conductor brought it all off with an impressive mix of discipline and abandon.