Friday, December 2, 2011

“Music That Was Quite Beautiful” – Review of Hartford Chorale/HSO Vaughan Williams Hodie

The Hartford Courant just posted a nice review of last night's performance of Vaughan Williams Hodie given by the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children's Chorus, and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. I'm glad he singled out the performance by the Children's Chorus; they really were spendid. I wish he had remarked on the beauty of the orchestra's playing; they offered a technically brilliant, emotionally satisfying performance. I noticed during our two orchestra rehearsals that Mr. Coffey rarely fussed at them for technical items; rather, he talked to them about important musical ideas -- shaping lines, finding the right dynamics to accompany the soloists, textual items that might inform their playing -- and trusted to them to find the technique to bring his interpretation to life. As a result, their playing was natural, energetic, and authentic. The strings, in particular, created some beautifully nuanced coloring. Bravo, orchestra!

Anyway, here's the Courant's review. If you were part of last night's audience, you'll agree with this good review. If you weren't there last night, well then, plan on being there tonight, tomorrow night, or Sunday afternoon. You won't want to miss a rare performance of this marvelous work.


Thanksgiving is barely past but bland holiday music has already overstayed its welcome. Thankfully the Hartford Symphony's Holiday Masterworks program, led by guest conductor Richard Coffey, was the perfect antidote.

Centered on a massive late choral work by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, this ambitious program was performed in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. It mobilized a large orchestra, three soloists, and the combined choral forces of the Hartford Chorale and the Connecticut Children's Chorus.

The Vaughan Williams “Hodie” was a treat to hear live in the intimate acoustics of the Belding. The work is a blending of mystical and folk-like musical styles. The storyline was set in music sung with laser-sharp concentration by the Connecticut Children's Chorus, who were led by their artistic director Stuart Younse. The rhythmic and tonal patterns of these passages present considerable challenges and difficulties, but these young singers met them and remained together in pitch and diction even throughout the trickiest narration (in the 13th movement), which is an extended passage that occurs late in the work.

The Hartford Chorale sang with massive force and forged the sonic pillars that supported the more intimate solo movements. It was fascinating to observe the shifting shapes that swept across the back of the stage as different choral forces stood or sat down throughout the performance. The motions themselves formed a physical counterpoint to the music that was quite beautiful in and of itself.

Tenor Eric Barry was impressive. His vocal placement allowed him to shade the mystical nature of the music and his attention to the chromatic inflections of the lines was engaging.

The center of the work was given to the baritone soloist, which was the setting of a Thomas Hardy Poem called “The Oxen.” Bass-baritone Eric Downs sang with warm and effective colorings. He drew us into the final stanza with gentle energy.

Soprano Stephanie Gilbert was best suited to the dramatic passages of the soprano solos, like the solo in “The March of the Three Kings,” and the first part of the “Epilogue” where her singing culminated the energy of the two other soloists who preceded her, building from lowest to the highest solo voices.

Coffey, who is a genius of pacing, kept the long-range shaping of the work in our minds in this work that can easily fall into a disarray of fragments.

The evening also included festive music and one traditional holiday favorite. Glinka's Overture to the opera Russlan and Ludmilla opened the event with punchy timpani sound, thrilling woodwind riffs, and string playing that sounded like fireworks.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite closed the first half of the program. Yes, this work is popular and many ensembles play it on auto-pilot. The HSO played it soulfully, and the balances in the Belding Theatre allowed us to hear details that are normally lost.

HARTFORD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA repeats its Holiday Masterworks concerts Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2-3 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Information: 860-244-2999 and

“Hartford Symphony Presents An Antidote To Bland Holiday Music”
By Jeffrey Johnson, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant,0,1268096,print.story


I can’t help but note that the author of this review used the exact same phrase -- “an antidote to bland holiday music” -- in his review of CONCORA’s 2009 Christmas program, “Christmas in the Americas.” Here it is:

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