Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 14, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Ravel & Debussy"

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

As she did on the first two “Masterworks” weekends of their 80th anniversary season, HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan surrounded two HSO premieres of recent rarities on the third program with two popular masterpieces from the standard repertory.

The concert opened with Claude Debussy’s 1894 Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun,” based on a poem of that name by Debussy’s friend Stephane Mallarme. In a spoken introduction, Kuan called it “the birth of modern music” and “full of ambiguity,” and the vibrant performance she led by the HSO captured both qualities, with special kudos to principal flutist Dominique Kim and harpists Susan Knapp Thomas and Mae Cooke.   

This was followed by fiery renditions of Chinese-born Huang Ruo’s colorfully scored four 2012 “Folk Songs for Orchestra,” which the composer hoped “to preserve and…transform…into new pieces of art.” Outstanding HSO soloists were concertmaster Leonid Sigal in “Little Blue Flower” and hyperactive percussionists Doug Perry and David West throughout.

Next came a real novelty: British-American musical polymath Michael Spivakovsky’s 1951
Cy Leo

Harmonica Concerto. Written in the light classical style of Leroy Anderson, its three tuneful movements demand the utmost virtuosity from the soloist. Hong Kong-born Cy Leo didn’t disappoint, tossing off its many challenges with kinetic and crowd-pleasing flair. Kuan and the HSO were committed accompanists.

But Leo’s encore - a jazz-inflected romp through the traditional Irish chestnut “Danny Boy” – was even more astonishing, from soulful interludes to audience handclapping, foot-stomping, and singalong. No more persuasive advocate for the harmonica in classical music can be imagined than this charismatic rising star.  

While the 15-minute suite is relatively familiar, the concert ended with Maurice Ravel’s seldom heard complete half-hour ballet “Mother Goose.” This 1911 score depicts four tales – Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and the Empress of the Pagodas – in music of great delicacy and charm. Kuan drew a dazzling account from all sections of the orchestra, and the lush “Fairy Garden” epilogue brought the full ensemble together for an exhilarating happily-ever-after ending.   

At the HSO’s next program (December 8-10), “Beethoven 5+5,” guest conductor Gerard Schwarz will precede that composer’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor”), featuring pianist Orion Weiss, and fifth symphony with a new piece by African American Adolphus Hailstork.