Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 4, 2012

Pachelbel and Tchaikovsky

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
by Michael J. Moran

The first half of the third “Masterworks” program in the current HSO season offered a historical survey of music for string orchestra over several centuries. It played to the strengths of guest conductor Joel Smirnoff, a former longtime violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet.

Joel Smirnoff
The program opened with Pachelbel’s Canon, likely written around 1694 but lost until 1919, which, for all its familiarity, is rarely performed in concert. The Hartford string section gave it a warm, affectionate reading at a steady, flowing tempo. A smaller ensemble then backed HSO principal violist Michael Wheeler in Telemann’s 1720 Concerto in G for Viola and Strings. Wheeler played this tuneful and appealing showpiece with a sweet, mellifluous tone that earned him enthusiastic applause from the audience and his colleagues alike. Orchestra keyboardist Margreet Francis gave discreet support on harpsichord continuo in both works.

The string ensemble expanded again for a sumptuous account of Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Premiered in 1910, the Fantasia opens and closes with a simple 1567 melody by Elizabethan composer Tallis and features a string quartet and a larger group which build to a rhapsodic climax in counterpoint with the full string orchestra. Smirnoff balanced these antiphonal forces with passion and precision.

The full orchestra appeared after intermission for a terrific performance of Tchaikovsky’s seldom heard Symphony No. 1, called “Winter Dreams” by the fledgling composer, who wrote it when still in his mid-twenties. Despite its sometimes episodic structure and an overly bombastic finale, the symphony often foreshadows the colorful orchestration and melodic genius of the mature Tchaikovsky. The woodwind, brass, and percussion sounded supercharged by their earlier rest period, with impressive solo turns by oboist Stephen Wade in the dreamy “Adagio Cantabile,” principal flutist Greig Shearer in the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo,” and bassoonist Louis Lazzerini in the opening and closing movements.

Smirnoff brought a lively and engaging stage presence to Hartford, earning the affection and respect of both his fellow musicians and an appreciative audience. A return invitation to the Belding podium would clearly seem well advised. 

December 2, 2012

A Christmas Carol

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through December 29, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

From the opening scene featuring dancing and flying ghosts, the audience knows that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is going to be different. The 15th anniversary production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, directed by Maxwell Williams, marks the holiday season in a spirited way (pardon the pun). Originally adapted and directed by Michael Wilson, this production is a masterpiece of family fun that Dickens himself would appreciate.

Bill Raymond is irascible, endearing, and a master of comic timing as Scrooge. His portrayal of the iconic curmudgeon reflects an ability to integrate classic and children’s theatre to entertain audiences of all ages. The venerable Noble Shropshire, in a dual role as Mrs. Dilber and Jacob Marley’s ghost, provides a brilliant catalyst for Scrooge’s epiphanies. The professionals gently guide the children in the cast to realize their own characters, and the result is a caring stage family that resonates with everyone. When Tiny Tim says “God Bless Us Everyone” audible sniffles of sympathy from the audience were heard.

While the story is true to the original text, special mentions are deserved for choreographer Hope Clarke, scenic designer Tony Straiges, costume designer Zack Brown, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel for their contributions. The Spirit of Christmas Past (Johanna Morrison), the Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) and the Spirit of Christmas Future (whom, according to the playbill, was played by “Himself”) are memorable portrayals.

For those who know youngsters who have never seen a live performance before, this production is a wonderful way to introduce them to the magic of theatre. When the performance was over, one bright eyes young girl was asked what she liked best about the production. Her reply was, “All of it.” She might not become a theatre critic in the future, but it's pretty sure she’ll want to go to the theatre again.