Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 30, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Mendelssohn Taking Flight"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
May 12-14, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

The title of this eighth program in the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series could refer to either of two composers named Mendelssohn whose music it includes. But all four composers on the program, brilliantly led by Brazilian-born guest conductor Alexandra Arrieche, are “taking flight” in different ways. 

Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Elegia Andina” (“Andean Elegy”), which opened the concert, was her first orchestral work. Written in 2000, it reflects the California native’s multicultural heritage by evoking traditional Peruvian music through imaginative use of flutes, clarinets, woodblocks, and tympani. From a raucous opening that depicts the Andes mountains to a quiet close which suggests ancestral longing, Arrieche and the HSO gave it a vivid and colorful spin. 

Next, taking flight perhaps more literally, came Ottorino Respighi’s 1927 suite “The Birds,” his delightful arrangements in 20th-century harmonic and instrumental language of five keyboard or lute pieces by earlier composers. A stately opening “Prelude” (based on Pasquini) was followed by an endearing “Dove” (Gallot), an uproariously clucking “Hen” (Rameau), a ravishing “Nightingale” (unknown English composer), and a comically insistent “Cuckoo” (Pasquini). Woodwinds, brass, harp, and celeste were star players in this charming performance.     

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s efforts to take flight into a musical career were constrained by her father and the conventions of 19th- century German society. But she wrote and performed over 400 songs and piano pieces for private concerts. Her only composition for orchestra, the 1830 “Overture in C Major,” was unpublished in her lifetime and not performed until the 1990s. Arrieche and the HSO brought visceral excitement to this tuneful and tightly structured piece.   

Fanny’s younger brother Felix’s musical career, however, took flight from an early age. One of his last compositions, the 1845 “Violin Concerto in E Minor” quickly became a repertory staple.  Rising African-American violinist Ade Williams was a captivating soloist, who deftly balanced sweet and lyrical with rich and forceful violin tone. Her opening “Allegro molto appassionata” was alternately yearning and energetic, her “Andante,” tender and glowing, and her closing “Allegro…vivace,” light and playful. Arrieche led a sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. 

Williams’ solo encore – a radiant account of the beloved “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s 1893 opera “Thais” – showcased the lush, mellow side of her artistry to awe-inspiring effect.