Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 13, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Romantic Rachmaninoff & Price"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
February 10-12, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

In the fourth program of the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, Music Director Carolyn Kuan paired two works by African-American women composers with a beloved late Romantic piano concerto played by an African-American soloist for a dual celebration of Black History Month and Valentine’s Day weekend. 

It opened with Jessie Montgomery’s five-minute 2012 mini-rhapsody “Starburst,” in which, the composer-violinist-music educator says, “Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies…to create a multidimensional soundscape.” A nimble, full-bodied account by the HSO strings got the concert off to an exuberant start. 

Next came Florence Price’s first symphony, which largely disappeared after its well-received 1933 premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until a recent renewal of interest in her work. A discursive, folk-inspired opening “Allegro [ma] non troppo” movement is followed by a hymn-like “Largo, maestoso,” a rollicking “Juba Dance: Allegro,” and a slapdash “Finale: Presto.” Interplay between a large percussion section, including bells, celesta, and a wider-than-usual array of drums, and the brass, string, and woodwind sections of the orchestra evoked both the call-and-response and body slapping techniques of Black traditional music in the HSO’s blazing performance.      

Terrance Wilson
The concert closed with a rapturous reading by Terrence Wilson of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, his 1901 breakthrough piece after three years of writer’s block cured by treatment with hypnosis and now a cornerstone of the standard repertoire. Wilson, a Bronx native with two decades of international acclaim to his credit, played the opening solo chords with immense power but varied his keyboard touch with tasteful nuance through an expansive, mercurial opening “Moderato” movement, a lush, serene “Adagio sostenuto,” and a vividly exciting “Allegro scherzando” finale, to capture all the music’s shifting moods. Kuan and the HSO offered impassioned support. 

As if this finale weren’t grand enough, Wilson rewarded the audience’s enthusiastic applause with a still more daring feat of digital dexterity in his encore, the pounding “Precipitato” finale of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1942 seventh piano sonata, which he seemed to toss off with disarmingly thunderous ease. Even without the Belding Theater’s overhead “piano cam,” the staggering virtuosity of Wilson’s furious finger work was abundantly clear to his enthralled listeners.