HSO's Faust Symphony Is Challenging But A Must-See

Special to the Courant

'Could you HEAR them?"… "Yes."

"Could you UNDERSTAND them?"… "No."

The audience was puzzled at intermission in a program centered on The Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt given by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra as the orchestra continued its 2016-2017 Masterworks Series in the Belding Theater Friday night at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. They were talking about the impact made by two actors, Crystal A. Dickinson and R. Ward Duffy, and ultimately the script, written by Colin McEnroe set within an orchestral concert in which the music was occasionally paused mid-stream.

The program was a collaboration among Carolyn Kuan, who is conductor and Music Director of the Hartford Symphony, Eric Ort, who was the artistic director of the event, and McEnroe, who has appeared several times with the orchestra over many years and is always welcome.

The program was amazing — even if many in the audience were slow to warm to it.

Only major orchestras play the Faust Symphony, and it is not common fare even among them. The HSO played the work brilliantly. The big music was big, and the delicate solos and chamber textures were tasty and refined. Kuan took the third movement with a light touch and the humor and satire of the music popped.

The first movement of the Faust Symphony turns on two extended parallel sections of music. The orchestra played most of the first of these sections but then froze suddenly just before music Kuan described as the "pride" theme in the pre-concert lecture. Duffy unfolded a character sketch about an inside trader. The music continued.

We heard most of the second parallel section of the movement, and pauses again in the corresponding off-centered moment. Dickinson developed a character who competes in fractions of a second, became a juicer, and then destroyed all previous speed records. The parallel "pride" theme continued. Liszt changed this "pride" theme the second time it is heard, and we had a new way to understand it.

These character sketches revealed insights into the music set in contemporary scenes. This was not a business-as-usual concert. It required us to draw connections from within and between both music and theater.

The audience began to settle after intermission. The spoken interludes in the second movement focused the heart-broken longing in the score. There is much more to this music than innocence alone.

Liszt wrote two versions of the Faust Symphony. The revised version is performed most often. It ends with a tenor solo and male chorus who sing of the final mystical redemption that takes place at the end of Goethe's Faust. Kuan chose the original ending (without the vocalists) because McEnroe set the redemptive scene as a solo for Dickinson who blew us back. Everyone felt and understood that moment. The place was silent and razor-focused.

The Faust Symphony is a big deal. Even without the acted interludes it requires an audience with a strong collective musical memory. But this concert asked for even more.

It would have been better received if the intermission had been marked in the program. Instead of generic program notes the audience needed a brief written introduction to help them understand the unique orientation of this event and its relation to Liszt and Goethe. The event should have started with the music itself — the confused array of the opening scene distracted at the wrong time. If the pre-concert lecture included some information about the production there would have been no need for the "post-concert Q&A."

But this was a bold program. It was gutsy, risky and complicated. It was insightful and memorable. I have never seen anything quite like it. It was thrilling.

"FAUST SYMPHONY," presented by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in this season's Masterworks Series continues 8 p.m. Saturday, March 11 and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 12 in the Belding Theater at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. For tickets: 860-987-5900 or hartfordsymphony.org.

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