Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 16, 2015

Saint-Saens & Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 12-15, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

How often does a guest conductor not only lead the world premiere of a new piece of music, but dedicate it to the orchestra performing it, and write the piece himself? Not very often, but that’s exactly what happened when Gerard Schwarz opened the sixth concert of this season’s HSO Masterworks series by leading the orchestra in his own “Symphonic Poem No. 1,” dedicated to them and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan.

According to the composer’s program note, the ten-minute piece “uses two themes…one is a slow melody in a…romantic style and the second is more agitated and angular.” Strings and brass were most prominently featured, but all sections of the orchestra proved their mettle in a taut performance that highlighted both the drama of the score and the mutual respect and affection between the musicians and the composer/conductor.  

Another personal connection was the conductor’s son Julian Schwarz, the soloist in a fiery account of Saint-Saens’s first cello concerto. This brief (twenty minutes) but virtuosic showpiece also marked the 23-year-old cellist’s orchestral debut at age 11 with his father conducting the Seattle Symphony, of which he was then music director; they later also recorded the piece. Their long affinity for it elicited a performance showcasing Julian’s technical proficiency, his interpretive maturity, and the orchestra’s vibrant playing. Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Pezzo Capriccioso” for cello and orchestra was a delightful encore.

Brahms’s second symphony is usually presented as the lightest of his four symphonies, but Maestro Schwarz’s dynamic baton also found in it some of the passion and power of the first and even the tragic grandeur of the fourth. In the opening “Allegro,” the quiet melancholy of the main theme led into a more urgent than usual climax; the pensive slow “Adagio” was disturbed by troubling thoughts; both trios in the livelier “Allegretto” were uncommonly perky; and the “Allegro” finale was an unabashedly joyful romp. This gentle piece has rarely sounded so hefty and dramatic. 

This is the second Schwarz family concert with the HSO in three years, and this winning program inspires hope that it won’t be the last.