Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 15, 2010

Masterworks Series: Program #1

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 14, 2010
by Terry Larsen

Kevin Rhodes, guest conductor and music director candidate, led a dramatic program of works with compelling spirit and expertise. This would come as no surprise to the audiences of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, long accustomed to his charismatic direction. An audition for future leadership of an ensemble is no small thing. The choice of repertoire enabled orchestra and maestro to fully evaluate each other in a short time. The audience, fully aware of the stakes, showered praise on Rhodes and the orchestra for playing such a demanding program so beautifully.

Johannes Brahms was prompted to compose the Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 in gratitude to the University of Breslau for awarding him a doctorate. "Compose a fine symphony for us!...But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!" His tongue and cheek response was to set four popular tunes of the day with rigorous attention to form and orchestration, subtly poking fun at the academics in his audience. Rhodes and the HSO brought this humor to the audience's attention with a solid, playful performance.

Beethoven's last piano concerto, No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, "The Emperor," was written during Napoleon's occupation of Vienna. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, a frequent collaborator with Maestro Rhodes, played beautifully, rendering this well known work with passion and clarity of technique suffused with subtle power. The HSO supported the pianist perfectly, every entrance and all issues of balance perfectly indicated from the podium. For an encore, Biegel played the Allemande from Bach's 5th French Suite, improvising on repeats of sections.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 4, a work that Rhodes described as "full of pain!", is an enormous undertaking for players and audiences. An earlier work had been officially denounced, forcing Shostakovich to comply with an injunction to simplify his works, to make them more optimistic and representative of "Socialist realism". He managed to assuage the authorities while satirizing the situation with a forced triumphal march in the final movement. The HSO rose to the demands of this monument with fire and determination. The audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.