Ask any audience member about the Sunday (March 16) concert by the Orchestra of Indian Hill at the Littleton Performing Arts Center, and the conclusion would likely be shared by all: There was simply no better place to be.
Artistic Director Bruce Hangen had assembled a program of three works with a supposedly “romantic” theme, although only one, Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” overture, dates from the Romantic era. Of the two other, 20th-century works, Serge Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet music evokes Shakespearean romance and Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto is perhaps romantic only in retrospect.
The real unifying factor in this program was the truly high level of performance delivered by both orchestra and the afternoon’s soloist, cellist Hai-Ye Ni. Replacing an indisposed Denise Djokic, Hai-Ye Ni brought an impeccable list of credentials as principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a string of awards and solo and ensemble performances all over the world. On Sunday, she was worthy of every one of them.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto is often compared with Dvorak’s, mostly because of their rather symphonic proportions and because they were the last “big” concertos for the instrument. But whereas Dvorak’s is full of rich, ripely romantic melodies and harmonies and a long series of climactic peaks and valleys in its finale, Elgar is more restrained in his romanticism, preferring an introspective, almost meditative expression, albeit always tender. There are flashes of brilliance, too, requiring agility and a virtuosic command, especially in the second movement’s dashing Allegro.
Hai-Ye Ni was in command throughout, in all contexts, all registers and all dynamic levels, making the recitative-like passages a sort of soliloquy and bringing an almost nonchalant lightness to the scherzo. With the watchful and secure coordination between Ms. Ni and Bruce Hangen and the orchestra, Sunday’s performance was as definitive a performance of this concerto as one could wish.
Serge Prokofiev was possibly the most original and innovative composers of the 20th century. His music cannot be confused with any other, and vice versa. In live performance, his ballet music for “Romeo and Juliet” is as riveting and far-ranging as any symphonic or dramatic work. It has extremes of mood from the tenderness of love to tragedy of the lovers’ deaths, of texture from Melissa Mielens’s ethereal flute lines (Juliet’s dance) to the shattering chords of Tybalt’s death. Every section of the orchestra responded in full voice — the horns screaming in anguish at the top of their register, the low brass and strings exuding raw strength and power, the Aubade’s light-hearted banter among the winds and Alice Hallstrom’s acrobatic violin obligato.
None of this superior music-making came as a surprise after the opening “Roman Carnival” overture of Berlioz, the beautiful aria on Laura Shamu’s English horn followed by a devilishly fast perpetuum mobile full of rapid-fire entrances, tricky off-beat rhythms and brilliant orchestral color. It dazzled in the orchestra’s and conductor Hangen’s firm grip — just as Berlioz intended.
McLaren Harris is a former music critic and journalist and a long-time writer in public relations and marketing communications for high-technology companies.