HSO Glides Through Challenging Program Of Stravinsky, 'Swan Lake'

Special to the Courant

Good orchestras dance through sound itself. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra danced through a gorgeous but challenging repertoire associated with dance and were later joined by two ballet dancers as the orchestra continued its 2017-2018 Masterworks Series in the Belding Theater, at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts Friday night.

The orchestra danced alone first. In a change of order from the printed program, the concert opened with the Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky. This work, premiered in 1946, was written as a concert piece but since 1972, when George Balanchine presented a ballet based on the score, it has also become associated with dance.

The first movement is powered by ostinato figures, and the HSO brass played the opening in dark colors with fierce, menacing sound. Conductor Carolyn Kuan kept the rhythmic surfaces clean and the music frequently grooved. Proof of success came at the close of the first movement when the music began to die away in the midst of oscillation and pulsing, but that energy from the opening haunted the sense of closure — and the sound burned like hot coals.

Stravinsky’s ballet “Jeu de Cartes (Game of Cards)” closed the first half of the program. The plot of this ballet brings a deck of cards to life as three hands of poker are “played.” The work is even organized into three “deals” instead of three “movements.”

To perform it effectively in a concert setting requires that its humor and plot can be understood through music alone. Kuan took a moment to talk about the music before conducting, and even had the orchestra play some of the “stolen” themes by other composers that are mischievously alluded to within Jeu de Cartes. As a result, chuckles could be heard throughout the hall as the audience recognized these moments during the performance. The music is a puzzle as much as a game. It presents technical challenges for all sections of the ensemble with tricky balances, syncopated rhythms and metric shifts that require concentration. The orchestra excelled at these challenges. Both works on the first half of the program improve ensemble in orchestral playing.

“Jeu de Cartes” is different in concept, sound and style from the Symphony in Three Movements, and it was a treat to hear both of these (much too) infrequently played pieces. But hearing them one after the other was too much of a good thing. A work by a different composer (maybe even one alluded to within Jeu de Cartes) would have been welcome.

The second half of the program consisted of excerpts from “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky. We last heard these excerpts on the first half of the May 2013 program (which also included music by Stravinsky), when dancers from the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts were featured. This time, dancers Dalay Parrondo and Yury Yanowsky (both associated with Boston Ballet) joined the orchestra as featured guest artists. The orchestra played three purely instrumental selections, then Yanowsky and Parrondo were featured in a “Scène” (called the “Couples Dance”). It was thrilling to see this ballet segment with the physicality of bows and the movement of musicians directly behind them. At one moment the music shifted from E-flat major to E major. As the solo violin began to play, lifts were introduced in the dancing — what a wonderful correspondence.

Each season Kuan has found space within her programming for collaborations that have brought playwrights, actors, dancers, visual artists, and all types of creatives in contact with the orchestra. These programs have been memorable, eagerly anticipated and well received. There were some in the audience who expected more dancing in this program. The space challenges of having an orchestra and dancers sharing a stage would have made that impractical. Less is more for an orchestra that can dance in pure sound.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra continues performances at the Bushnell’s Belding Theater, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, Saturday, March 10, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, March 11, at 3 p.m. $40 to $58. 860-987-5900, thebushnell.org.

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