Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 19, 2014

West Side Story

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT 
February 16, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

For the second time this season bad weather cancelled an HSO concert. Thursday’s opening performance of this Masterworks series program featuring orchestral suites from two stage works and a showpiece for piano and orchestra fell victim to winter storm Pax. And though storm Quintus inconvenienced Saturday concertgoers, a full house greeted the musicians in the Bushnell’s Belding Theater on Sunday afternoon.

A suite from Richard Strauss’s 1911 “Der Rosenkavalier” opened the concert. The orchestra’s sumptuous playing captured both the elegance of the opera’s setting in 1740s Vienna and the late romantic opulence of Strauss’s musical score. The whooping brass, the warm, rich strings, and the vivid percussion made the strongest impressions, but every member of the larger than usual ensemble seemed energized by the vigorous leadership of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan.

Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello next made her HSO debut in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A set of 24 variations on the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin, the "Rhapsody" is one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. But the 31-year-old soloist, winner of several international piano competitions, met its technical and interpretive challenges with seeming ease. Her straightforward playing was always appropriate to each variation, climaxing in the lush eighteenth variation, which she rendered with moving simplicity.

Intermission was followed by a visceral account of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The entire orchestra played with distinction, snapping their fingers in several of the jazzier dances and shouting “Mambo” in that number with enthusiasm. But the brass and enlarged percussion sections played with special fervor, and the Latin flavor of the score emerged with particular strength.

In this season of unusual events, Sunday’s audience was treated to not one but two encores. After the Rachmaninoff, Vacatello extended her Paganini theme with a thrilling rendition of Liszt’s etude “La Campanella,” based on the last movement of Paganini’s second violin concerto. And the concert ended with the orchestra’s exuberant version of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, in welcome contrast to the somber close of the "West Side Story" suite.