Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 14, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Copland & Bernstein"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
March 8-10, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With a program of two complete ballets and a waltz, the sixth “Masterworks” weekend of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season offered three contrasting perspectives on the art of dance.

The first selection was notable in three respects. The orchestra and its Music Director Carolyn Kuan presented Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring” not in the usual concert suite, but complete; they played its original version for 13 instruments; and their performance was accompanied by a 1958 film of the ballet choreographed by and featuring Martha Graham, for whom it was written.

While the suite includes the most familiar music, the added visual dimension brought the missing numbers equally to life. And the 64-year-old Graham, in the leading role of the wife (the ballet depicts 19th-century newlyweds moving into a farmhouse) still danced with remarkable grace and agility. Kuan’s inspired leadership drew an intimate yet surprisingly full-bodied sound from the small HSO ensemble.    

The next work on the program made perhaps the most visceral impact: a buoyant account by the full orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s ballet “Fancy Free,” also dating from 1944. This, too, was the complete ballet, not the concert suite Bernstein extracted from it. It tells the story of three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York who meet three women in a bar (the same plot soon became the musical “On the Town,” with different music by Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). Highlights included: a jazzy “Scene at the Bar;” a sinuous “Enter Two Girls;” and a sultry, Latin-flavored “Danzon.”

The program closed on a glamorous note, with ballroom dancers Anastasia Barhatova, director of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Suffield, and Andrew Kerski sweeping elegantly across the front of the Belding stage while Kuan and the HSO played Johann Strauss, Jr’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” behind them. A flop when it debuted in Vienna as a choral piece in 1867, the “Waltz King” reworked it for orchestra later that year, when it quickly became the epitome of the Viennese waltz. The musicians made it sound just as stylish and sumptuous as the dancers looked in their sequined gown and tuxedo.  

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (April 12-14) will feature guest conductor Jacomo Bairos and the Hartford Chorale.

March 11, 2024

Review: Springfield Chamber Players, "March Reveries"

First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA
March 10, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Photo by Eagan Pictures
New to many living in Western MA is Springfield Chamber Players, formerly known as MOSSO (Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra). Its mission is to provide small, primarily string, professional concerts in a variety of venues throughout Hampden County. 

The troupe continued its journey for the 2023/24 season as part of the Longmeadow Chamber Series held at First Church of Christ: an ideal, comfortable, and acoustically pleasing performance venue. The world-class musicians played well in this intimate setting for about 40 audience members. The program's theme was "March Reveries," and the quintet delivered an exciting and harmonious performance.

Clarinetist Christopher Cullen kicked off the Ralph Vaughan Williams piece – "Six Studies in English Folk Song". One would never guess that the composer penned his piece originally for cello and piano. Patricia Edens, cellist; and three violinists, Springfield Symphony concertmaster Masako Yanagita, Miho Matsuno, and Yuko Naito-Gotay filled out the quintet and blended seamlessly with the alto-like tones of melodic wind.

Each movement was surprisingly short and distinctive. The next two works were performed without clarinet, but solely strings. Selections from Franz Joseph Hadyn's “The Dream” (Op.50, No.5) delivered the reliable elegance of his tonic harmonies punctuated by running passages, and “contrary motion” where two musicians play notes that move in opposite directions. 

The two movements of Paul Chihara's "Ellington Fantasy: Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady" were recognizable as popular jazz tunes. However, the arrangement for string quartet transformed Ellington into an extraordinarily new feast for the ears. It echoed the music experience of Scott Joplin. 

The final piece, Bernard Herrmann's "Souvenirs de Voyage," reunited the strings with the clarinet to evoke memories of emotion, turmoil, regret, and amusement. Herrmann's skill at scoring for film and television, such as Citizen Kane and Twilight Zone's “The Living Doll,” were evident in the different points of view heard as each musician played a contrasting line in particular passages.

One advantage of the smaller venue is that each participant in the audience could hear the vibrations against the soundboards of the strings and the musicians' proficient bow techniques that usually blend into the background with larger performance groups. The chamber music series is not only highly entertaining, but a good way to access Springfield's elite performers.

Concerts continue as part of Westfield Athenaeum Chamber Music Series on Thursday, April 18 at 7pm, and once again at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow on May 12 at 3pm on the Town Green, weather-permitting.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Fantasias"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
March 9, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

In notes for this concert, dedicated to the memory of SSO principal pianist Nadine Shank, Michelle Pina defines a fantasia as “a musical composition whose improvisational nature casts aside traditional musical forms and in turn bows to the fancy of the composer.” Guest conductor Adam Kerry Boyles, Assistant Conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and the SSO musicians found this spontaneous quality in all six pieces on this imaginative program. 

The program opened with a glowing account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a 1934 orchestral setting of the classic English folk song. A faster midsection, which quotes the traditional song “Lovely Joan,” offers a lively contrast. Lili Boulanger’s 1918 “D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning”)” takes the opposite approach, framing a soft, dreamy interlude with brisk, joyful outer sections. Boyles and the SSO made an exuberant case for this rarity.   

Quynh Nguyen
Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen next soloed in classical and film composer Paul Chihara’s 2021 “Piano Concerto-Fantasy,” written for and in collaboration with her. This colorful score draws on both Vietnamese folk music and modern jazz to depict Vietnam’s past and hopes for the future. Nguyen’s technical prowess and interpretive sensitivity captured all the music’s shifting moods. Boyles and the orchestra were enthusiastic partners.

The concert’s second half featured the Springfield Symphony Chorus and UMass Amherst Chorale, well prepared by their respective directors, Nikki Stoia and Reagan G. Paras. Gabriel Faure’s 1864 “Cantique de Jean Racine” set a sacred text by the French poet to music of gentle consolation for chorus, harp, and low strings. Randall Thompson’s poignant 1959 settings of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Choose Something Like a Star” are for chorus and full orchestra. Voices and instruments blended with seemingly effortless clarity under Boyles’ nuanced lead.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1808 “Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra,” last performed by the SSO with Shank in 2015, completed the program. Nguyen and the ensemble rendered the many tempo changes in this sometimes ungainly but always entertaining twenty-minute piece with forceful virtuosity. Though only heard for the last few minutes, the combined choruses sang with equal strength and fluidity, investing Christoph Kuffner’s text on the power of the arts with triumphant conviction.

The next SSO concert is “An American Celebration” on April 6, 2024