Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Hartford Symphony Orchestra – Rachmaninoff and Firebird

Once in a while, we are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to witness extraordinary things.

On Friday night, D and I were in the right place at the right time. We were in our seats at the lovely Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, where the Hartford Symphony Orchestra presented a compellingly-performed program of music by Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Bernstein, and Stravinsky.

Of course, the program was marketed as suitable for Valentine’s Day, and in her pre-concert remarks, Music Director Carolyn Kuan teased out some tenuous “love” connections between the selections. But it didn’t really matter, because this music can stand on its own, especially when presented so beautifully.

Within the orchestral concert repertoire, Richard Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser can safely be classed as a “war horse” or “chestnut,” and it’s a safe and familiar curtain-raiser; one might expect that the orchestra would just breeze through it, and that the audience would use those several minutes as an opportunity to get settled and ready for the main course to follow this appetizer. But the orchestra gave its all, from the first solemn intonation by the horns and clarinets Y to the magnificently stirring conclusion. This was thrilling-music-making and a grand start to the evening.

The Wagner was the perfect overture, if you will, to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a lush, luxurious tapestry of gorgeous melodies and sublime orchestration. (Thank you, Rachmaninoff, for giving the best melody of all to the violas. Y)

Pianist Sean Chen may have been inspired by the orchestra’s magnificent run with the Wagner, but it was clear from his first commanding notes that he is an artist of considerable depth and talent. I’m not sure I can find the words to describe what we heard and saw: Command. Depth. Maturity despite his young age. Delicacy and strength. An easy virtuosity, and an uncanny ability to spin out Rachmaninoff’s extended melodies, increasing intensity and focus even in diminuendo. Superb concentration and sustained communication with Kuan and with members of the orchestra. (Rarely have I seen members of the orchestra so attuned to a soloist. What were they experiencing??) This was a bravura performance all around.

I must comment separately on Mr. Chen’s demeanor. Too often, soloists choose to make their performances all about them, spoiling an otherwise fine performance with gratuitous gestures, flailings, grimaces, grunts and groans, and more. I’ve written about this sort of thing here http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/2011/09/watch-me.html. To behave in this manner is more than unprofessional: it is arrogant, self-centered, and, frankly, tawdry.

Mr. Chen chose to focus his considerable energy and attention not on presenting himself, but on presenting Rachmaninoff’s ineffable music. He drew a full, resonant sound from the piano, but did so with an economy of gesture that never distracted from what he wanted us to hear, and never made himself the center of attention. Oh, there was no doubt that Mr. Chen has a sparkling personality and great charisma, but all this was channeled into the music, with the result that the music sparkled and was wholly irresistible. I hope that the HSO engages this fine artist often in the future.

As I mentioned above, the orchestra caught Mr. Chen’s fire and gave a white-hot performance; they transcended their accompanist role, and the entire work came across as duet, or rather, a symphony for piano and orchestra (rather than piano merely accompanied by orchestra).

I was wholly overcome by this performance, and (uncharacteristically for me) was probably the first person in the hall on my feet as the last crashing chords died away. (Standing ovations have become far too commonplace; I reserve them for truly outstanding performances.) During intermission I just sat in my seat wiping away the tears again and again.

Oh yes, there was a second half to the program.

While I love Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (I love the entire score), this music seemed out of place on this program, especially after the magnificent, magisterial Rachmaninoff, and in front of the ravishing Firebird to come. Why include it at all? The performance seemed almost perfunctory; the HSO and Kuan gave it a more compelling read when it was programmed … last year? Year before? Well, it’s great music, but it paled between the Rachmaninoff and the Stravinsky. Bernstein is one of the best, but this was not the place for him. 

Was I emotionally and intellectually wrung out after the Rachmaninoff? Had I invested so much in listening with such deep engagement to the piano concerto that I had nothing left? Maybe so, and perhaps that’s why I found the Bernstein lacking, and also why, to my surprise, the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird also felt a bit flat. Perhaps Maestra Kuan was a little tired, too? The orchestra played beautifully, but I felt no fire in this Firebird, especially toward the end, where instead of an inexorable crescendo and overwhelming finish, it just….ended. 

Perhaps the Bernstein sapped a little too much energy from the orchestra, its conductor (who must generate and inspire energy when it is ebbing), and at least one member of the audience (me).

Nonetheless, the evening was one of the best-ever orchestral performances I’ve heard; these stunning, searing performances of the Wagner and especially the Rachmaninoff will be indelible in my memory.

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