Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 12, 2012

Brahms & Harris

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
March 10, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth concert in its 2011-2012 “Classical” series, Music Director Kevin Rhodes led the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in what he called, in a recent interview with the Springfield Republican, a “bizarre collection of pieces” which he promised would be “a wild experience to hear…together” for their common “reuse in the best sense of the word” of pre-existing material.

Two familiar works of Brahms surrounded two rarities by American composers. The concert began with the “Variations on a Theme of Haydn,” which Brahms wrote in 1873 as a theme, eight variations, and a finale. The opening theme, which later research has shown may not actually be Haydn’s, is ingeniously varied and transformed in each succeeding variation, and the slightly reduced orchestra rendered its every contrasting shift of tempo and dynamics with unerring precision and charm.

Next came a thrilling performance of Roy Harris’ “Symphony No. 3,” a 1938 masterpiece whose craggy harmonies evoke the wide open spaces of the composer’s native Oklahoma. In one 18-minute movement with five sections, the piece reflects a wide range of influences, from medieval plainchant to Renaissance polyphony to American folk music. This powerful score deserves to become a repertory staple, and kudos to Rhodes for reviving it.

Intermission was followed by the least known and most exotic work on the program, Alan Hovhaness’ 1979 “Guitar Concerto No. 1.” Soloist Denis Azabagic launched into a virtuoso account of this dramatic and gorgeous 32-minute piece, which adds a Spanish flavor to Hovhaness' special love for Armenian traditional and liturgical music. Along with shimmering percussion throughout, a series of guitar duets with solo woodwinds and strings in the central slow movement were especially lovely.

In a counterintuitive but canny stroke, Rhodes and his musicians closed the concert with a joyous romp through Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” an 1879 commission from the University of Breslau which quotes several student drinking songs and ended this imaginative program on a crowd-pleasing high note.