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HSO Wraps Up Masterworks Season With Impressive Collaboration

Special to the Courant

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s final Masterworks concert of 2017-18 features an impressive collaboration with the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and three solo vocalists. The program includes Anna Clyne’s Masquerade (2013), Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1935-6).

Music Director Carolyn Kuan and the orchestra gave a brief talk and demonstration of Clyne’s Masquerade before performing the complete work. First, Kuan discussed the inspiration of the piece: London’s pleasure garden concerts, which also included many other types of entertainment including street performers, acrobats, masquerades and more. Then she described the origins of the two main melodies, which the orchestra demonstrated in both simplified form and finished orchestration. This approach was very effective and gave the audience a tangible window into what they were about to hear.

Masquerade served as a fittingly opener to a night billed as a “spectacle of excess.” This short work grabs the listener from the start, when a percussive attack launches a barrage of vivid orchestral swirls rising and falling like a technicolor roller coaster. From the tumult, fragments of the two main themes emerge and are propelled out of the swells like ships tossed on waves. They rise out of the main texture, sometimes replacing it completely, but are soon swallowed up again.The ideas are hinted at, revealed in a brief tease, but never allowed to fully develop. The overall effect is of images coming into focus before blurring as the viewer spins away. The work demands dramatic but nimble changes of character, and the orchestra executed them convincingly, leading to a warm reception by the audience.

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 finished the first half. This lyrical piece for soprano soloist with orchestra sets a prose poem by James Agee, in which a young boy recalls the sights and sounds of a lazy summer evening. The music brings the words to life through text-painting: a rocking chair is translated into undulating triplets, a passing streetcar into rhythmically clanging chords, and so on, creating a vivid backdrop for the singer.

Soprano Lisa Williamson believably brought to life the innocence, naivety, and wonder of the child narrator. Her pure voice and ethereal high notes had a dream-like quality that complemented the nostalgic work beautifully. Though there were a few spots when the text was not fully clear or where the orchestra could have been quieter so Williamson could better be heard, the performance transported the listeners into the narrator’s childhood so completely that it took a couple moments to return to reality once the music ended.

Orff’s Carmina Burana completed the program. This massive piece lasts over an hour and is scored for orchestra, choir, children’s choir, and three vocal soloists. Aside from the difficulty of each individual part of the piece, putting together such a work is a major undertaking. It requires extensive preparation by each ensemble before everyone meets for the full rehearsals. These combined rehearsals not only involve the complication of putting all of the components together but also of the singers getting used to a new conductor. Each has their own director who led rehearsals—Richard Coffey for the Hartford Chorale and Meredith Neumann for the Connecticut Children’s Chorus—yet the performance was conducted by Kuan.

Impressively, the complexity of this process and the difficulty of the music was in no way evident in the concert. The different ensembles formed a cohesive group and gave a powerful performance of Orff’s cantata. The choral singing moved from crisp and articulate to lush and lyrical where required. The orchestra portrayed the different moods—dramatic, witty, romantic, and more—with clarity and intensity. Tenor David Guzman stood out in his one solo: his gorgeous singing and his acting (which managed to stop just shy of over-exaggeration) made “Olim laces colueram” (“Once I Lived on Lakes”) a memorable moment. Soprano Lisa Williamson continued to shine, showing a very different side than that seen in the Barber. Baritone Tyler Duncan’s multiple solos were compelling. His rich, velvety voice is a pleasure to listen to, and he deftly handled the range of moods and virtuosic demands of the role. All of the elements came together in a dramatic, polished performance. Not surprisingly, it finished to a resounding standing ovation.

The pre-concert talk featured Kuan in conversation with Williamson, Duncan, and Hartford Chorale Director Richard Coffey. Both soloists spoke about the importance of singing in a choir when they were starting out, adding personal significance to Carmina Burana: the combination of children’s choir with professional singers was not just an effective coloristic device, but mirrored their own journeys as singers. The conversation focused on that piece and the Barber, without touching on the third work. Clyne’s composition was also left out of the program notes and was not discussed in the event description on the HSO’s website, leading me to wonder if it was a late addition to the program.

Additionally, the event is accompanied by a “Festival of Fate” beginning two hours before each performance and continuing during intermission. From the website’s description, I was expecting a bit more of a spectacle, but it was very restrained. The wandering performers from Sea Tea Improv were a fun addition to the evening, but as a whole, it felt a little half-hearted.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s program “Carmina Burana: Festival of Fate” continues Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets start at $38. hartfordsymphony.org

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