Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 18, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven by the Rivers

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
April 14-16, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Jie Chen
The rivers referenced in the title of this concert and in the three works on the seventh program of the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series are: the Vltava (Moldau) in the Czech Republic; the Yellow River in China; and an unnamed brook in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Music Director Carolyn Kuan conducted. 

The program opened with a vigorous account of Bedrich Smetana’s 1874 “The Moldau,” the second of six symphonic poems depicting scenes of Czech history and landscape called “Ma Vlast” (“My Country”). At Kuan’s aptly flowing tempo, the musicians fervently evoked the river’s adventurous progress from a quiet mountain stream past a lively hunt, peaceful pastures, a rowdy wedding feast, stately castles, nymphs dancing at night, turbulent rapids, and beyond view.       

Chinese-born pianist Jie Chen next made a rousing HSO debut in the orchestra’s first performance of the “Yellow River Concerto,” adapted in 1969 by six Chinese musicians from Xian Xinghai’s 1939 “Yellow River Cantata.” The concerto’s four movements were inspired by poems of Guang Weiran which were set in the cantata: “Song of the Yellow River Boatmen;” “Ode to the Yellow River;” “The Yellow River in Anger;” “Defend the Yellow River.” The music’s style reflects Chinese folk traditions and the romanticism of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Chen met its showy virtuoso demands with consummate ease; Kuan and the HSO were avid collaborators. 

The program closed with a bracing rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1808 sixth symphony, which he not only nicknamed “Pastoral” but also gave descriptive titles to all five movements. Kuan set a brisk pace for “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Country,” which the ensemble keenly followed. They relaxed for an amiable “Scene by the Brook,” reveled in a high-spirited “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” roared through a tumultuous “Thunder, Storm,” then celebrated a heartfelt closing “Shepherd’s Song: Joyful, Thankful Feelings after the Storm.”    

By the end of the concert, the entire Belding Theater's audience felt refreshed not only by the waters of spring but by the enduring rapport Kuan has nurtured with a reshaped HSO after over a decade of leadership and the strong partnership they’ve built with a committed and growing audience.