Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 5–7, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

The “Star-Spangled Banner” launched this opening weekend program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season. On Saturday, when 10 Connecticut residents became American citizens at the orchestra’s second annual naturalization ceremony 90 minutes earlier on the same stage, Carolyn Kuanjj welcomed these new Americans to special seating at the concert. Beginning her eighth season as HSO Music Director after acquiring her own American citizenship at the same ceremony in 2017, Kuan led the national anthem with fervor and aplomb.

Both works that followed fittingly featured no guest soloists but the HSO itself in two orchestral showpieces which owe their existence to Boston Symphony maestro Serge Koussevitzky. When Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was treated for leukemia in New York in 1943, Koussevitzky offered him an orchestral commission, and the resulting five-movement “Concerto for Orchestra” has become one of Bartok’s most enduring masterpieces.

In a broad and sweeping account by Kuan and many HSO soloists, the opening “Introduction” was dark and haunting; the “Game of Pairs” was jaunty; the central “Elegy” was, in the composer’s own words, “a lugubrious death-song;” the “Interrupted Intermezzo” hilariously mocked the German march quoted in Shostakovich’s contemporaneous “Leningrad” symphony; and the upbeat “Finale” was a whirlwind of energy. In a classy touch, Kuan had the five pairs of woodwind soloists stand on their first appearance in the second movement.          

A magisterial reading after intermission of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” written in 1874 for solo piano and orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 for Koussevitzky’s pre-Boston orchestra in Paris, brought the program to a colorful and triumphant close. Mussorgsky depicts 10 paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann from a posthumous exhibit with music, including a repeatedly varied “promenade,” of immediate melodic appeal and great emotional depth.

While it might have been more instructive to project the Hartmann paintings which inspired Mussorgsky, the New Britain Museum of American Art exhibit “that provides a modern interpretation” of his art (listed in a program insert) is often stimulating and confirms the Maestra’s refreshing desire to think outside the box and engage with new community partners.