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HSO's Celebration Of American Composers An Exciting Romp

Special to the Courant

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra performed admirably Friday night despite a last-minute change in conductor, when Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno Philharmonic, had to cancel because of illness. The HSO’s Assistant Conductor Adam Boyles stepped in, skillfully partnering the orchestra for an exciting romp.

The concert featured four works by three American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. In his pre-concert talk, Boyles noted that each of these four works was in some way visionary for its time. This is certainly true, though the programming of the concert itself is more thoughtful than visionary. While the third work (by the only composer whose name was not included in the program’s title) is new to the HSO and possibly to audience members as well, the other composers and pieces are likely very familiar.

The concert opened with a charming work by one of American’s most beloved composers, Aaron Copland. An Outdoor Overture (1938) is an exuberant fanfare featuring Copland’s familiar Americana style also heard in Billy the Kid, which served as the concert’s closer. The two pieces were written in close proximity and cover similar musical ground. While these works did function as effective bookends to the program, including only one of them would have made space for another musical voice to be included on the program. For example, a work by Florence Price, an African-American composer contemporary to both Copland and Gershwin, could have provided an another interesting perspective on the concert’s theme.

George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (1925) showcased Italian pianist Alessio Bax. Notably, this is the first piece Gershwin orchestrated completely by himself, and he reveled in exploring the orchestra’s sonic palette. His background as a pianist is also very much in evidence throughout the concerto. The three-movement work follows a traditional structure of fast-slow-fast, but weds jazz with the European Romantic tradition. The result is as clearly American as Copland’s music, but has a very different character. The music swings in catchy dance rhythms and builds in lush, compelling waves showcasing both the soloist and the various sections of the orchestra. Bax performed with vigor and passion, convincingly executing both the work’s bombastic gestures and more subtle lyrical lines. His captivating performance was complemented well by the ensemble’s successful navigation of the work’s rhythmic drive and vivid colors. The piece features several rousing climaxes and when it finally concluded, the performers received a standing ovation.

Still, the HSO shined most brightly on the third work. Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body (2000), although written approximately 60 to 70 years after the other works on the program, fit in well. The piece is based on a melody from Medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen, which is gradually introduced and developed as the music builds to a final dramatic fanfare. Theofanidis skillfully creates a myriad of vibrant timbres, and the rich harmonies of the work give a slight nod to Copland’s open sound. While each of the pieces on the concert provided many opportunities to highlight soloists from the ensemble, they stood out most in this work. The performers showed a distinct care and intensity in shaping each gesture, executing the work in a crisp and compelling fashion.

Copland’s Suite from Billy the Kid (1938) rounded off the evening. In the ballet, Copland weaves together a variety of musical influences including jazz, Romanticism, and authentic American cowboy songs to build a evocative score. The Suite features iconic moments from the longer work while losing none of the theatrical qualities. The clarity of interpretation found in Rainbow Body continued into this final work, and the HSO’s sparkling performance was met with the second standing ovation of the evening.

Each edition of the Masterworks concerts typically includes a pre-concert talk one hour before the show. Boyles, who was joined briefly by the evening’s soloist, did an excellent job filling this role as well. If you are able to come early for the talk, it is highly recommended. Experienced music aficionados and newcomers alike will learn from — and enjoy — Boyles’s insightful discussion of the music on the program.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s program Copland & Gershwin, continues Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Bushnell’s Belding Theater, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $40 to $58. 860-987-5900 and hartfordsymphony.org

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