Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 13, 2015

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
April 9-12, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

In a program like this HSO concert, which included a symphonic poem, a complete ballet, and a suite from another ballet, it may seem ironic that dancers accompanied the orchestra in the symphonic poem and in the suite, but not in the complete ballet. Thus does unpredictable HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan tweak the expectations of her audiences with delightful results.

Saint-Saens first set his “Danse Macabre” for voice and piano in 1874 to a poem by Jean Lahor about death as a fiddler leading skeletons in a midnight graveyard dance. While his later orchestral version, which opened this HSO program, features a solo violin, the missing text cries out for expression through ballet. So, Kuan invited Katie Stevinson-Nollet, Artistic Director of Full Force Dance Theatre, to choreograph a dance accompanying the orchestra, and four of her dancers depicted death and three skeletons with aptly ghoulish make-up, costumes, and gestures. The stylized dance ritual eerily enhanced the haunting orchestral account.

Prokofiev’s 1929 ballet “The Prodigal Son” is much less familiar than the biblical story that inspired it, but its ten short movements, lasting just over half an hour, depict the tale with a winning combination of the composer’s youthful brashness and his mature serenity. Kuan sharpened the edges of the HSO brass during the son’s rowdy adventures and deepened the lush tone of the strings during his seduction by a siren and in his moving return to his father’s home, Prokofiev’s favorite section.

After intermission Kuan jettisoned the preview of Mahler’s fourth symphony (to be performed by the HSO in June) listed in the program for some engaging banter instead with Stevinson-Nollet and her dancers, along with Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory’s Artistic Director Victoria Mazzarelli and Principal Ballet Master Tim Melady and a dozen of their student dancers, and demonstrations by all the dancers.

The orchestral performance of six excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” that closed the program was grand and colorful, while the dancing by exquisitely costumed Nutmeg students in three movements was elegant and poised.

Both collaborations further rewarded Kuan’s outreach efforts with a younger, more diverse audience.