Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 31, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, From the New World

The Bushnell, Mortensen Hall, Hartford, CT
May 26, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

In pre-concert remarks, HSO Executive Director Steve Collins cited the compassion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom this program, rescheduled from January by Covid, would have honored, in dedicating the concert’s opening music to victims of the ongoing war in Ukraine and recent mass shootings in the United States. 

Jeri Lynne Johnson
That context added contemporary resonance to the poignant emotions of African-American composer Henry T. Burleigh’s century-old settings for baritone and piano, rearranged in 2020 by Christina Dolanc for string orchestra, of three traditional spirituals, especially in the caressing warmth that guest conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson drew from the HSO strings. Founder, in 2008, of the award-winning Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, Johnson was the first African-American woman, in 2005, to win an international conducting prize. 

Next, in sharp contrast, came the joyous Slavonic Dances #1 and #8 by Dvorak, Burleigh’s teacher at the National Conservatory in 1890s New York City, exuberantly performed by the full orchestra under Johnson’s animated direction. Just as the folk traditions of his Czech homeland infused Dvorak’s music, he encouraged Burleigh to draw inspiration from his African-American musical roots, as Burleigh later advised his protégé, Florence Price.

A brilliant account of the 1934 “Concerto in One Movement” by Price, the first African-American woman whose music was played by a major American orchestra, then marked a sensational HSO debut by rising young African-American pianist and music educator Michelle Cann. Through a tempestuous opening “Moderato” section, a serene call-and-response “Adagio,” and an invigorating “Allegretto” close, Cann’s thrilling virtuosity was energetically supported by conductor and orchestra with the “compelling, onward-sweeping force” of the composer’s intent.

A standing ovation brought a rare and welcome encore: a turbulent 1967 arrangement by Price student Margaret Bonds of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” heard earlier in Burleigh’s quieter setting. 

The program closed with a vibrant rendition of Dvorak’s familiar ninth, or “New World,” symphony. Written in New York in 1893, it reflects not only his Czech heritage but his new interest in Native American and African-American melodies. A solemn, then lively opening “Adagio-Allegro molto,” a soulful “Largo,” a dramatic “Molto vivace,” and a heroic “Allegro con fuoco” finale were played with blazing conviction under Johnson’s dynamic baton.