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.