OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Kuan, Hartford Symphony go organic to open 70th season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Hartford Symphony; Carolyn Kuan, conductor
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Edward Clark, organist, Connecticut Youth Symphony (Daniel D’Addio, music director)
Harrison: Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra; Wu Man, soloist
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”); Edward Clark, organist
Friday, October 11, 2013 • Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell; Hartford
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m.
Information: www.hartfordsymphony.org

When Music Director Carolyn Kuan and officials at the Hartford Symphony planned the opening concerts of its 70th anniversary season, they tried to pack a lot of elements into the programs. Nonetheless, Kuan and a cast of hundreds managed to pull things off successfully for the most part.

Since the concerts were played in Mortenson Hall at The Bushnell, rather than the much smaller Belding Theater, the orchestra took the opportunity to spotlight the hall’s Austin Organ, which was built in 1929 and installed when the hall opened a year later. The HSO partnered with the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists for what it called “Bachtoberfest,” with dozens of demonstrations, concerts and lectures at churches around the city in the fortnight preceding the concerts. One can only hope that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will consider a similar strategy next year when it celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Walt Disney Concert Hall organ.

At 4 manuals and 102 stops, the Bushnell organ is good sized, although not gigantic; it’s smaller than the Disney Hall instrument and, considering that Mortenson Hall is quite a big larger than Disney, lacks the presence of the Los Angeles instrument. Nonetheless, it’s an important instrument by one of America’s oldest and most important organ builders, which is located in Hartford, so the evening’s focus made eminent sense.

Choosing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, was an obvious, if predictable choice, but Kuan at least changed things up a bit. Edward Clark, the HSO’s long-time organist, opened the evening playing the toccata as a solo. The HSO and the Connecticut Youth Symphony then combined forces to join Clark in Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of the fugue made popular in Walt Disney’s 1940 movie, Fantasia (the choice was also a subtle promo for the screening of Fantasia at The Bushnell on Oct. 26, with the HSO playing the music live). The orchestras and Clark alternated portions of the fugue until they amalgated for the grand finale at the end.

It’s never easy to keep 150+ musicians on the same page but Kuan — who cuts an energetic presence on the podium — was successful for the most part. Clark added a few flourishes to Bach’s familiar opening measures although, in my experience, Austin Organs aren’t designed to sound like German Baroque instruments. As an unannounced encore, Kuan and the two orchestras gave a spirited account of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture.

After intermission, Kuan, Clark and the HSO delivered a solid performance of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”). Heard from a center balcony seat, Mortenson Hall accentuated the lush sound of the orchestra’s strings, and the brass players were quite prominent during their shining moments. However, possibly because Kuan had the entire orchestra seated on the stage floor (as opposed to risers), the wind sections disappeared into a sonic haze for much of the performance.

Kuan opened the performance deliberately but soon had things humming along with a brisk sense of urgency. Clark conveyed a proper sense of mystery to open the second section and his C Major chord to fourth section burst forth with grandeur; by the end, he and the orchestra were playing with full-throated glory.

If neither the Bach nor the Saint-Saëns were adventurous programming choices, Kuan made up for it by inserting Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra in between the two warhorses. Wu Man, Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, was the soloist playing a piece that Harrison had written for her in 1977, but that was only part of the story.

Last June, Man was carrying her 17-year-old pipa (an ancient Chinese lute-like instrument with a long neck and four silk strings that she holds on her lap when performing) on a US Airways flight when a flight attendant accidentally broke it. After the instrument was declared irreparable, the airline paid for Man to fly back and forth to Bejing to have a new instrument made by the same master who made her old model (read a New York Times story HERE).

Last night’s concerts were Man’s first with her new pipa. Although Man said in the article that, “It [the new pipa] definitely has potential, but it will take a couple of years to get my own music out of it,” she’s probably the only one who could tell. Her playing was both dexterous and delicate, she got sympathetic support from Kuan and the HSO strings in the rhythmically challenging work, and the audience ate it all up. After a generous ovation, Man responded with a flashy encore, which brought forth even louder applause.

Hemidemisemiquavers (thoughts from an outsider):
• The printed program had no information on the organ (!).
• There was also no preconcert lecture, which was too bad because the Harrison concerto could have benefitted from some explanation.
• No information on Mortenson Hall, either, which seems a pity since the larger-than-usual crowd undoubtedly included people who had never been inside (the size of the crowd was undoubtedly swelled by parents, grandparents and other relatives of the kids).

The inside of the hall has a stunning art deco effort. When I first looked at it I was reminded of Radio City Music Hall (minus the latter’s garish red décor). Turns out that both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm: Corbett, Harrison and MacMurray (Radio City was opened in 1932 two years after The Bushnell). According to Wikipedia, “Drama, the largest hand-painted ceiling mural of its type in the United States, is suspended from the Hall’s roof by numerous metal supports. Painted by Barry Faulkner, the painting cost $50,000 to create in 1929.”
• Although the orchestra’s Web site indicates there that senior rush and student tickets are available, it gives no price for either. The cheapest tickets I could find six weeks in advance of the concert were balcony seats at $38.50 each (plus internet service charges). There were only a modest number of folks sitting in the balcony, although the Web site says that balcony tickets for tonight’s concert are nearly sold out. The vexing issue of pricing tickets in a way that keeps the organization in the black but opens doors for newcomers and lower-income folks is obviously an issue in Hartford as it is in most other cities.
• Parking was free in adjacent government lots, a far cry from Los Angeles where the government parking structures are money-makers for the county.
• Most of the “Masterworks” series of concerts are held in the 900-seat Belding Theater and are spread out over four days (Thursday through Sunday). Former music directors Michael Lankester and Edward Cummings are returning to lead concerts in this 70th anniversary season and violin soloist Peter Wingrad is the son of another former music director, Arthur Wingrad.
• Kuan has some interesting programming choices throughout the season. Among the most intriguing: Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with Mozart’s Requiem.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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