Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
March 10–13, 2016
by Michael J. Moran
The two “Russian masters” whose music was played on this “Masterworks Series” program were Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan had the canny programming idea to surround Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto with the two most acclaimed of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies, which are still much less familiar than the Tchaikovsky Concerto to the average concertgoer.
The concert opened with Prokofiev’s first symphony, which he called the “Classical” to reflect his goal of writing a modern symphony in the style of Haydn, who founded the symphony as a classical form in the late eighteenth century. Except for some spiky 20th century harmonies (it dates from 1917), it could have been written a century earlier. A reduced-size HSO gave the four short movements (totaling 15 minutes) a lithe and buoyant performance.
The evening’s star was 18-year-old violinist Simone Porter, who gave a dazzling account of Tchaikovsky’s concerto. Her youth and modest physique belied the power, maturity, and technical finesse of her playing. She tore into the faster rhythms of the opening Allegro and the finale’s Cossack-style dance with full-bodied passion, but brought a hushed delicacy to the haunting slow movement melody that famously made Leo Tolstoy cry on first hearing it. The orchestra was with her all the way under Kuan’s watchful leadership, which kept the many passages of dialogue between soloist and ensemble in clear balance.
But for emotional intensity and sonic splendor, the commanding account of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony that followed intermission was the evening’s musical highlight. Written at the height of World War II as a celebration of the human spirit, it featured the program’s largest and most colorful orchestra. From the huge climax of the opening Andante, through the fleet, motoric scherzo, the dark, brooding Adagio, to the exuberant Finale, the playing was forceful and riveting.
The musical bond between conductor and ensemble seems only to have been strengthened by the recent resolution of the HSO’s labor dispute, to the evident satisfaction not only of the large audience in the Bushnell’s Belding Theater, but of the Maestra herself, who personally thanked patrons for their support as they left the hall.