Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 6, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Elgar’s Enigma"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
September 29 - October 1, 2023
by Michael J. Moran 

The HSO Brass Quintet
For the first weekend of their 2023-2024 “Masterworks” series, the HSO’s Music Director,
Carolyn Kuan, framed two HSO premieres of contemporary works with two standard repertory favorites and spotlighted the talents of several orchestra members. 

After a vigorous traditional season-opening national anthem, they launched directly into Franz Schubert’s 1822 eighth symphony, which he inexplicably left “Unfinished” after completing only two movements. Kuan and the HSO offered a dramatic “Allegro moderato” and a radiant “Andante con moto.” 

Next came conductor-composer Gerard Schwarz’s 2012 arrangement for harpsichord, strings, and brass quintet of three movements from George Frideric Handel’s 1739 Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9. The HSO Brass Quintet – John Charles Thomas and Kenny Piatt, trumpets; Barbara Hill, horn; Brian Diehl, trombone; and Jarrod Briley, tuba – added a spiky modern edge to Handel’s familiar Baroque harmonies and met the work’s technical demands with ebullience. 

The Quintet was then joined by percussionist and sometime HSO player Doug Perry in a rollicking take on Ohio-based composer-educator Daniel McCarthy’s jazzy 1995 “American Dance Music, Concerto for Brass Quintet and Percussion with Orchestra.” 

All five dances in varied American rhythms were performed with virtuosic flair. Diehl’s sinuous trombone solo in “Serenade” and endearing tuba/xylophone duets by a nimble Briley and an agile Perry in “Unsquare Dance” and “Jazz” were especially entertaining. Jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines’s “Rosetta” was a jaunty encore by the Quintet. 

The program closed with a thrilling account of Sir Edward Elgar’s 1899 Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” which put the English master on the musical map. Highlights among the fourteen brilliantly played variations were: a warmly impassioned first, for Elgar’s wife; a whirlwind fourth, for an energetic friend; an intensely moving ninth, titled “Nimrod,” for Elgar’s publisher (often played separately as a memorial piece); an exuberant eleventh, for a neighbor and his bulldog; and the last and longest one, a grandiloquent self-portrait. 

A similar mix of more and less familiar pieces is on tap for the HSO’s next program (October 20-22), which surrounds Florence Price’s first violin concerto with popular works by Brahms and Dvorak and features the HSO’s 23-24 Joyce C. Willis Artist in Residence, violinist Melissa White.