Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 23, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through March 14, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The fourth concert in the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute performances
by HSO ensembles and guests recorded at Hartford area venues is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through March 14, 2021, at 5:00 pm. 


Filmed at Hartford Stage and entitled “Drumroll, Please - Music for Percussion,” it featured works of Joe Tompkins, Glenn Kotche, Paul Lansky, Evan Chapman, and Alan Hovhaness, performed by: HSO Principal Percussionist Robert McEwan, who also introduced each piece; HSO Principal Timpanist Eugene Bozzi; and guests Evan Glickman, Aya Kaminaguchi, Doug Perry, and David West. 


The program of mostly 21st-century music began with Tompkins’ “Blue Burn,” written in 2011 for the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble. The five players, whose instruments included caxixi (closed baskets filled with beans) and tamborins (small Brazilian tambourines without jingles), deftly conveyed what McEwan called the “sensation of muscular burning.” Up next was Wilco drummer Kotche’s delicate 2015 “Stones Flow” for four mallet instruments, which, in McEwan’s words, created “a unique oscillating field of sound and tone color.”


The concert’s centerpiece was Lansky’s 2005 “Threads,” a half-hour long “cantata” for percussion quartet in ten short “arias and preludes” for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and pipes, “choruses” for various kinds of drums, and “recitatives” for bottles, flower pots, and crotales. The motley ensemble produced a gamut of sounds, from ethereal to fierce, with often mesmerizing effect. Next came Chapman’s 2013 “Cassiopeia” for two vibraphones, in whose quiet texture West and McEwan, in his words, found “supreme beauty and serenity.” 


Last up was Hovhaness’s “October Mountain,” dating from 1942, his only summer as a Tanglewood student, when he likely visited October Mountain State Forest in nearby Lee. While incorporating some twelve-tone elements, rare in Hovhaness, its five short movements also reflect what McEwan called the “ancient and spiritual flavor” of the composer’s Armenian heritage. The performance by the full sextet, including gong, tam-tam, and marimba, was alternately haunting and stirring.

The Hartford Stage acoustics were helpfully clear and resonant. The musicians were all masked, and both their frequent need to move and the size of their instruments kept them safely distanced. Brief welcome and closing remarks from HSO Board Chair Jeffrey Verney brought added gusto.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Brahms’ Last Hurrah

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 18, 2021
by Michael J. Moran


Kevin Rhodes
photo by John Robert Williams
Since Symphony Hall was closed by the Covid pandemic almost a year ago, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes and his musicians have presented a weekly “Homegrown” series of short videos performing in their homes which are available for free streaming on the SSO web site. They’re now also offering a series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music education events” via Zoom.


The fourth program in the series featured the Maestro examining the fourth and last movement, marked “Allegro energico e passionato,” of the fourth and last symphony by Brahms, written in the key of E Minor and premiered in 1885. Host SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens projected the full orchestral score on the screen and played excerpts from the orchestra’s live performance of the piece in November 2019 to illustrate Rhodes’s comments.


Exuding the same enthusiasm he displayed in an earlier program about Beethoven’s symphonies, the Maestro noted that this movement takes the unusual form, more regularly used by Bach, of a passacaglia, or continuous variation, often over a bass line but here played at some point by almost every section of the orchestra. It was fascinating to see and hear how the notes on the page translate into the sound of the SSO as Rhodes described the changes of mood between musical bars and the different numbers of notes Brahms used in each bar to achieve a variety of emotional effects.


Though always using language easily understood by non-musicians, the Maestro called for frequent audience feedback to make sure everyone was following him (they were). Words like “diminished chords,” “fermata,” and “marziale” never trumped phrases like “incredible feeling,” “super-dramatic,” and “fast notes going all over the place.” Answering a viewer’s comment in the Q&A session on the movement’s “abrupt” ending, Rhodes added that the rare minor key close (where the symphony began) is “sober” rather than “flashy,” like the typical symphonic finale.


Lipkens provided strong facilitation skills and engaging technical support throughout the evening. The next program in this series will be held on Thursday, March 4, at 7:30 pm and will feature SSO Principal Cellist Emily Taubl on “The Art of the Audition: From Conservatory to Career.”

February 16, 2021

REVIEW: Albany Symphony, Romantic Brahms

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
February 13 – March 13, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Like other orchestras in the local region, the Albany Symphony has reinvented itself during a season in which the Covid pandemic has ruled out business as usual. They are livestreaming monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members, with guest musicians, and recording them for 30-day availability on demand. Livestream broadcasts include access to pre-concert discussions and post-concert Q&A sessions.

Their latest concert, led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller and performed at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, featured music by William Walton, Tyson Davis, and Johannes Brahms, all written when they were in their early twenties. It opened with 16 selections from Walton’s “Fa├žade,” delightful 1920s settings of nonsense poems by Edith Sitwell, brilliantly declaimed by soprano/narrator Lucy Fitz Gibbon. A sextet of woodwinds, brass, cello, and percussion sounded alternately sinuous, jazzy, and hilarious (quoting Rossini in the “Jodelling Song”) under Miller’s fanciful direction.

Next came the world premiere of Davis’s “Distances,” commissioned for this event. A 20-year-
old Juilliard student, the already multiple award-winning composer cites modernist Elliott Carter as an influence on the “intense chromaticism and ambiguous harmony” of his work. Reflecting “physical and emotional” separation during the Covid pandemic, a colorful ensemble of twelve players, from bassoon to marimba, punctuates soft, brooding passages in “Distances” with eruptions of questing tension. The Albany musicians played this affecting piece from a promising new voice with conviction and finesse.

The concert closed with a novel take on a relatively unfamiliar work. Miller presented an early four-movement version for nine instruments by the 25-year-old Brahms of what would become his six-movement first orchestral serenade as a template for a first symphony. The ensemble of four woodwinds, horn, and four strings was winningly transparent, and Miller’s urgent leadership of a crisp opening Allegro, a flowing and graceful Adagio, a light and delicate Minuet I and II, and a brisk closing Rondo made a strong case for the work’s symphonic ambition.

The musicians were well spaced across the ample stage, and the conductor and string players wore masks. Sound quality was clear and full, while the videography was imaginatively varied. Insightful comments from Miller, Davis, and Fitz Gibbon added much value to the discussion and Q&A.

February 15, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
February 12-17, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The fifth installment of the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music which they would have played at Covid-cancelled concerts will be available on the HSO web site through February 17 at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 67-minute webinar focused on two of three pieces originally programmed.

The Valentine’s Day weekend concerts were to feature “The Butterfly Lovers,” a violin concerto based on a legend which Kuan called “the Chinese Romeo and Juliet” and written in 1959 by two Shanghai Conservatory of Music students, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. It was clear from the Taiwan-born Kuan’s Zoom conversation with Chinese-American violinist Sirena Huang, the scheduled soloist, that both had grown up with this story of Liang and Zhu, whose love can only be fulfilled when they’re transformed after death into butterflies.


Brief video clips of a recording by Gil Shaham helpfully introduced this colorful score. But by demonstrating how her violin can simulate Chinese instruments like the two-stringed erhu and the four-stringed pipa (both also illustrated with video clips), Huang provided deeper insight into the music. Longtime HSO followers will appreciate the poise and enthusiasm she exuded in reflecting on her teaching and performing.


The second half of the February concerts would have presented Stravinsky’s complete 1910 ballet “The Firebird,” rather than the more familiar suite of excerpts. With dramatic video clips from the movies “Fantasia 2000” and “Return of the Firebird” morphing into orchestral performance videos under Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and Valery Gergiev, Kuan told the Russian folk tale it depicts of Prince Ivan, who frees 13 captive princesses from a spell cast by the sorcerer Kashchei and destroys him with a magic feather from the firebird.


In the HSO’s original 2020-2021 season brochure, Kuan recalled that she once sang the role of Carmen in college! While more of this story would have been fascinating to hear if she had discussed the selections from Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” the program ended fittingly with HSO’s moving performance of the “Firebird” finale recorded separately during Covid as a tribute to local essential workers.