A review of the January concert of Bruce Hangen and the Orchestra of Indian Hill, by McLaren Harris
Nothing says that a symphony orchestra program must have a unifying theme. Maestro Bruce Hangen and the Orchestra of Indian Hill’s program on Sunday, January 25, at the Littleton Performing Arts Center, dubbed I See London, I See France, could as easily have been called “I See Glasgow, London, Paris and St. Petersburg” to cover works by Oliver Knussen, Britten, Debussy and Stravinsky. No matter; each work stood in its own light and on its own merits under the baton of conductor Bruce Hangen.
Let’s take them in order. Oliver Knussen’s well crafted “potpourri,” The Way to Castle Yonder, opened the program in a lighthearted, almost playful vein, despite the quasi-seriousness of its theme. Its four brief interludes, taken from an operatic collaboration with children’s author Maurice Sendak, compose a sort of requiem or tombeau for Sendak’s beloved pet terrier, on his way to Castle Yonder, or “doggie heaven.” In an accessible idiom and its own way heartfelt, the work was a pleasant, well executed and easily grasped opener – such a contrast to October’s season opening “Don Juan” of Richard Strauss which, for both audience and orchestra, was almost like being shot out of a cannon, albeit exhilarating.
Benjamin Britten’s song cycle on nine poems selected from modernist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations, followed. The last output of Rimbaud’s three-year literary career (ending at age 20!), its 42 poems symbolize the sometimes bewildering variety and vitality of life from an outsider’s point of view. Even if the meaning and imagery of Rimbaud’s poetry is sometimes obscure, last Saturday’s performance was highly successful because of Britten’s superbly sensitive musical settings and the excellent singing of tenor Matthew Anderson.
Anderson’s voice is truly a pleasure to hear. He has a fine lyric quality, well controlled throughout its range, and clearly articulated diction. His repertoire varies from Bach to Stravinsky and he resides locally (Boston), so one hopes to hear more of his work soon.
Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune is as familiar and well-traveled as any musical work in the past 120 years, but it is always a pleasure to hear – orchestral timbres and textures and delicate harmonies that caress the ear, perfectly expressing the French fascination with classic mythology (e.g., l’Avenue des Champs-Elysées).
Conductor Bruce Hangen and the orchestra treated each line with unhurried delicacy and with an occasional gentle flourish, creating purely ethereal imagery. OIH Principal Flutist Melissa Mielens’s sustained flute solos were outstanding in tone and expression, as were Li-Mei Liang’s languid but focused violin lines in her debut as the orchestra’s concertmaster. Deborah Feld-Fabisiewicz’s rapid rise-and-fall arpeggios on the harp provided a delicious touch of fantasy.
Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music to Petrouchka is a devilishly difficult work for any orchestra, with constantly switching meters, shifting accents and tempos, abruptly changing dynamics and moods, and exposed instrumental textures. Relying on an ancient theatrical device of marionettes come to life, Petrouchka is starkly orchestrated with almost every instrumental resource.
Conductor Hangen chose to present the four scenes consecutively, separated by his description of the action with occasional musical hints. The result was both dramatically and musically satisfying, standing on the excellent skills of the orchestra’s players. Among many others, accolades go to Mary-Lynne Bohne, trumpet; Michael Milnarik, tuba; Bonnie Anderson, piano; Emmanuel Toledo and Sandra Halberstadt, clarinets; the entire string sections for their vigor; all percussion; the horn section and the rest — too numerous to mention.
Let us not neglect Bruce Hangen himself, who forged a path through the thickets of complexity with sure hands and unfailing energy.
COMING UP: See Maestro Bruce Hangen and the Orchestra of Indian Hill perform works by Beethoven, Bloch, and Higdon, with guest cellist Mihail Jojatu of the BSO and Boston Cello Quartet, Sunday, March 1, at 3:00 pm at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center.