Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 11, 2012

Brahms and “Beatboxing”

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
January 5-8, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Having yielded the podium to Richard Coffey for the third program in the Hartford Symphony’s 2011-2012 “Masterworks” series in December, HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan returned to lead the offbeat fourth program, which surrounded a recent Finnish composition with two familiar masterpieces from 19th-century Vienna.

Kuan opened the concert with a sparkling performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Overture to Die Fledermaus.” Her flexible tempos brought warmth and restless energy to the lilting rhythms of the Viennese “Waltz King.” Strings and woodwinds played with special flair, and principal oboist Heather Taylor took a well-earned solo bow.

Next came the novelty on the program, “Fujiko’s Fairy Tale for Beatboxer and String Orchestra,” written in by Jan Mikael Vainio. The soloist, 34-year-old Washington D.C.-born Shodekeh, a professional beatboxer and faculty/musical accompanist for Towson University’s dance department and the American Dance Festival at Duke University, used only a microphone and his mouth to create an amazing range of vocal percussion sounds.

While this technique is most widely used in hip-hop, Shodekeh’s sounds blended surprisingly well with Vainio’s lovely tonal 20-minute string score based on Japanese mythology. The soloist’s stamina (he almost never stopped “playing”) and his obvious enjoyment of his musicmaking delighted the audience, which joined him and HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal in an enthusiastic round of rhythmic clapping during a brief solo encore.  

Intermission was followed by a marvelous account of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C minor.” Conducting without a score, Kuan elicited a dramatic opening from the orchestra, and her tempos throughout were unusually fleet, except for a caressing rendition of the “Andante sostenuto” second movement and a heartwarming version of the familiar main theme of the finale. Woodwinds, horns, and brass were singled out for deserving solo and group bows.

While Shodekeh may have been the main attraction for some of this program’s diverse audience (he is African-American and performed at the HSO’s free season preview concert in September), they appeared to enjoy the Strauss and Brahms pieces just as much as the Vainio. With Kuan’s canny programming instincts, the future of classical music in Hartford looks bright indeed.