Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT|
March 10-12, 2017
by Michael J. Moran
Classical music lovers who heard Kevin Rhodes and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra perform Franz Liszt’s “Faust Symphony” in October, 2009 could be pardoned for assuming this might be their only chance to hear it. Not to be outdone by her northern neighbor, Carolyn Kuan and the HSO didn’t just give local concertgoers another crack at this rarely heard masterpiece but added some theatrical flair.
The historical Faust who practiced astrology, alchemy, and sorcery in 16th-century Germany became a popular symbol in later Western literature of how special powers in earthly life could cost a man his soul. Goethe’s 1808 play about Faust inspired musical settings by Berlioz, Schumann, and Liszt, whose “Faust” symphony is in three movements, each depicting a major character in the story: Faust; Gretchen, the young lover who redeems him; and Mephistopheles, the Devil who promises him wealth and restored youth.
The symphony was written in 1857 as an instrumental work, but Liszt added an optional epilogue with tenor and male chorus singing the final lines of Goethe’s text. While Rhodes included this epilogue, Kuan replaced it with a new script by Connecticut writer and media personality Colin McEnroe. Hartford TheaterWorks artistic associate Eric Ort directed two Equity actors, Crystal Dickinson and R. Ward Duffy, in gripping performances of McEnroe’s scenes, several of which were interspersed in each movement. These mostly showed individuals reflecting on ethical dilemmas in their 21st-century lives, from hedge fund management to scientific research. Perhaps the most moving scene was the last one, Dickinson as a redeeming God.
The music, lasting almost 90 minutes, is among Liszt’s most technically demanding and harmonically ambiguous scores, and a very full HSO rose to the challenge with a riveting performance. Kuan clarified the massive textures of the Faust and Mephistopheles movements, and the delicate duet between principal oboe Heather Taylor and principal viola Michael Wheeler in the Gretchen movement was especially radiant.
In a post-concert discussion hosted by Kuan, with helpful contributions from McEnroe, Ort, Dickinson, and Duffy, audience comments and questions confirmed this imaginative presentation as another triumph for the path-breaking maestra and her community-minded ensemble.