Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 8, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Debussy & Ravel"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
November 4-6, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

In the second weekend of its 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, the HSO and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan explored various forms of rejuvenation through music, from the transformative power of water in Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” to the translation of moonlight into Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and of dreams into his “Nocturnes,” and the career-extending gift of Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” to a pianist who lost his right arm to war. 

Debussy drew inspiration for “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”), which opened the program, from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name three times, twice in settings for voice and piano, and as a movement of his 1890 “Suite Bergamasque” for solo piano. That version, orchestrated by French musician Lucien Cailliet in 1905, was luminously performed by the HSO and Kuan.    

Next came a welcome reprise of Philadelphia-born Mason Bates’ 2007 showpiece “Liquid Interface,” which Kuan first introduced to HSO audiences in April 2017. She helpfully explained its four movements, with musical illustrations from orchestra members, before recorded sounds of glaciers breaking apart opened the turbulent first movement, “Glaciers Calving.” This was followed by a gentle “Scherzo Liquido,” a dramatic “Crescent City,” contrasting the joy of New Orleans jazz with the destructive flooding of Hurricane Katrina, and a peaceful closing “On Lake Wannsee” in Berlin. The ensemble gave a colorful account of this crowd-pleasing score. 

Alessio Bax
In justifying her decision to present only the first two (“Clouds” and “Festivals”) of Debussy’s three Nocturnes, Kuan cited the composer’s dissatisfaction with the sound of the wordless women’s chorus in the first performance he heard of “Sirens.” She and the HSO rendered the haunting mystery of “Clouds” with delicate nuance and the sensual exuberance of “Festivals” with controlled abandon. 

The concert ended with a riveting performance by Italian-born New York-based pianist Alessio Bax of the concerto Ravel composed in 1930 for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after a World War I injury. Bax handily met its daunting technical challenges, from a stirring early cadenza to a jazzy middle section and an exhilarating finale; his left-handed dexterity across the keyboard looked especially vivid on the Belding’s overhead camera. Bax’s two-handed encore of a Brahms Hungarian dance transcription was even more rejuvenating.