Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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.