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.