It was an evening of surprises at the symphony. Strange sounds filled the corridors surrounding the Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Three different stations were set up in the hallway, each having large, resonating automotive parts like gas tanks and mufflers. Appropriate sticks and mallets were provided and people were encouraged to see if they could make music out of these vintage used car parts.
Because on Thursday evening, which opened the final series of Masterworks Concerts in this 70th Anniversary Season of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra was performing a significant new composition by a young composer who is beginning to attract serious attention.
Long gone are the days when new music drove all but the most dedicated audiences away by choice, and this work by Mason Bates, who was born in 1977, was user-friendly, accessible and lively. The work was called "Alternative Energy; for Orchestra and Electronica." Not only did the music weave computer articulated electronic sounds, but it also featured a wide array of car parts played by percussionists that included brake drums, gas tanks, mufflers, and the suspension spring from a large truck. The lobby gave us the chance to internalize these sounds, and to play them for ourselves as musical instruments.
The music itself was not simply consumed by its own gimmicks. The orchestral writing was imaginative and Bates developed ideas with careful control and clever transformations. The HSO, led by Music Director and Conductor Carolyn Kuan, kept the energy in "Alternative Energy" flowing. The sound of the chord that opened the third movement was exquisite, and the orchestra interacted with the electronic sounds with stunning precision. It was an engaging performance of a new work worth hearing.
The concert opened with a festive account of Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien." This work is a succession of charming tunes like a sonic postcard from 19th century Rome. The HSO played the virtuoso figuration that peppers the work with snap, creating thrilling textures.
Then the HSO's principal flutist Greig Shearer was featured as soloist in Mozart's Concerto for Flute No. 1. Shearer has long been a familiar and distinctive part of the HSO woodwind sound and he played Mozart with intelligence and great skill.
But after the concert everyone was talking about the imaginative performance of Ravel's "Bolero" that closed the event. Kuan stood motionless to allow the audience to become focused and still. When she started, the music was whispered and deliciously quiet. To our surprise Shearer stood when he played the extended opening flute solo, which made an unexpected connection to the Mozart concerto we had heard on the first half of the program. But as each successive soloist stood, it became clear that the plan had another impact: standing brought the jazz out of this music. Each solo was energized by the increased movement and physicality of standing, and the performance leaned toward the sensibility of dance, which in music intended for ballet was a very good thing.
The trombone soloist was the last one standing, and during the final heavily mixed presentations of the melodies something else unexpected happened. Ten snare drum players from The University of Connecticut Drumline, directed by Marvin McNeill, began to enter the hall. They created a thrilling impact as the music intensified and drew to its frenzied close.
The audience exploded into applause. It was a powerful and imaginative approach that made a familiar work seem new and full of potential. The season closed with a smile that the entire hall shared.