The Arts, Etc.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series
Program No. 4


The Koski Memorial Concert

Thursday, December 3 - Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 3:00 PM

Andrew Grams, guest conductor
Leonid Sigal, violin

Review by Donna Bailey-Thompson

    Blessings on whomever is responsible for selecting the Koski Memorial Concert program as performed by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Andrew Grams: Bedrich Smetana's "Vltava" ("The Moldau") from Ma Vlast (My Fatherland); Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D Minor, with Leonid Sigal, HSO's concertmaster, as soloist; and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor.

    Music Director Candidate Andrew Grams introduced himself when he walked onto the Belding Theater stage to give the Concert Preview. Grams, 33, has spent the last several years as guest conductor of world famous and other respected symphony orchestras - the Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, National, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, Utah, Hamburg, Malmo, Edmonton, Melbourne, and others. This season he will direct in Montreal, Scotland, Ireland, Tokyo, Seoul, Ottawa, and Birmingham, among others.

    After he graduated The Juillard School with a bachelor of music degree in violin performance, he was a member of the NYC Ballet orchestra from 1998-2004 where he played The Nutcracker 398 times. In 2003, he received a conducting degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. In response to questions from the audience, Grams said that within five minutes of rehearsing with an orchestra he's just met, he can assess what can be accomplished within an abbreviated rehearsal period, which areas will need work to navigate more easily and which can hold their own. He exercises before a concert but cannot eat until afterward. His scariest musical experience was while playing second horn: he had only two notes to play in a Mozart piece and that responsibility nearly paralyzed him with fear.

    The concert opened with Smetana's charming tone poem that traces the Czech Republic's longest river that begins as a trickle -- represented by a delicate, watery flute - and grows into a babbling brook. Before it eventually joins the Elbe, the Moldau (German for "wild river") favors listeners with its familiar melody - music that is happy, mournful, ethereal, that ripples and deepens. As rushing hellbent conquering water, it generates high drama before it eddies and then flows quietly, a wide waterway channeled between the river's banks.

    The bucolic pleasure of the Moldau still clung when Leonid Sigal, favoring his right leg, using a cane, walked slowly to center stage, propelled there in part by the audience's warm welcome. Raising his violin into place, he began playing the clear opening notes of the Sibelius violin concerto. Although reviewing is subjective, I can't explain the surprising instant effect of the combination of Sigal and Sibelius: by about the tenth note, I could have wept. My notes declare, "His soul plays the violin." Additional notes during the first movement (Allegro moderato) include "powerful, visceral; and with the orchestra, emotional tension, evidence of dedicated practice. Was composer Sibelious's heart breaking?"

    With the second movement (Adagio di molto), the mood was pensive, as if saying, "On the other hand..." During passages of some of the most romantic music ever composed, Sigal's passion was constrained by technique which let the music soar without becoming saccharin. Under the melody were traveling bass; anguished beauty of hope and loss. During the third movement (Allegro ma non tanto), energy exploded, as if the HSO musicians thought, "Leonid Sigal is one of us, and we're going to play out hearts out for him." The audience responded in kind, on their feet, cheering.

    The mighty Tchaikovsky #5 completed the program with Grams continuing to polish his debut as a Music Director Candidate. His affection for the symphony did not relax his attentiveness to exacting refinement of both key moments and Tchaikovsky's trademark sweeping panoramas. The first movement (Andante-Allegro con anima) suggested military marching, even the cadence of the cavalry. One passage resembled the opening lines of, "When Johnny comes marching home again, hoorah, hoorah." Within the second movement (Andante Cantabile, con alcuna licenza), a dirge-like beginning gave way to a single horn presenting another hauntingly familiar romantic melody. After noting the name of the popular song it inspired (Moon Love), I surrendered to the music. In Dr. Richard E. Rodda's program notes, he wrote: "At the head of the manuscript of the second movement, Tchaikovsky is said to have written, 'Oh, how I love ... if you love me...".

    A waltzing tempo dominated the third movement (Allegro moderato); the melody was borrowed from an Italian street song Tchaikovsky remembered hearing. Tucked into one passage was a sequence reminiscent of the verbal signal to end a children's game of hide 'n seek, "Ollyolly enfree" (phonetic interpretation). With the fourth movement (Finale: Andante maestoso-Allegro vivace), there was a triumphant march, the strings went crazy, one crescendo after another, all punctuated by the original theme. Tchaikovsky knew how to build an ending, so well, in fact, that during a pause, a few in the audience clapped prematurely. As the maestro signaled the beginning of the coda, he swiveled towards the audience for just two seconds, beaming a Charlie McCarthy grin that said, "Fooled ya." There was a ripple of laughter. That toothy grin not only neutralized any embarrassment or harrumphing disapproval, it also demonstrated the young conductor's sense of humor and flexibility. The protracted coda went on long enough to erase the understandable faux pas as if it had never happened. The passionately emotional symphony ended victoriously. The audience stood. The applause generated three curtain calls. An evening filled with beautiful, stirring music ended but a memory was born.

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