Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 18, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Brahms and Haydn

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 15-17, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

While familiar works by Brahms and Haydn were played in the second Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and Carolyn Kuan’s 9th season as their Music Director, the centerpiece of the program was actually a new work by Christopher Theofanidis. The Maestra’s canny sense of programming connected the three pieces in unexpected but enlightening ways.

The concert opened with a vibrant account of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn.” Research after its 1873 premiere suggests that the theme that opens and closes the work was not even written by Haydn, but it has retained its title as one of Brahms’s most popular works. Kuan and the orchestra drew strong contrasts among the varied moods and tempos of the eight variations, culminating in a jubilant triangle-tinged closing outburst of color.
Percussion Collective

That triangle was not among the huge array of percussion instruments showcased in a brilliant performance of Yale music professor Theofanidis’s compulsively listenable “Drum Circles.” Co-commissioned by the HSO, the 2019 piece features a solo percussion quartet and three percussionists from the orchestra. Four members of the Percussion Collective – Svet Stoyanov, Doug Perry, Ayano Kataoka, and Victor Caccese – played a range of instruments focused around bells, marimbas, and drums.  

Five short movements with thought-provoking titles like “Sparks and Chants” and “How Can You Smile When You’re Deep in Thought?” evoked a glittering range of sounds from the agile soloists, who were in almost constant motion from one instrument to another throughout the 25-minute piece. An arrangement by composer Garth Neustadter of a tango by Astor Piazzolla was an imaginative and crowd-pleasing encore.

The concert closed after intermission with a joyous rendition of Haydn’s next-to-last symphony, No. 103. Dating from 1794, its opening drum roll (the source of its nickname), dramatically played by HSO principal timpanist Eugene Bozzi, made it sound much newer to an audience with “Drum Circles” still ringing in its ears. While missing the Haydn theme used by Brahms, the variations on two folksongs in its “Andante” second movement echoed the form and feeling of the Brahms opener. An expressive opening “Allegro” movement, a lilting “Menuetto,” and a jubilant finale closed a smartly integrated program on a high note.