By McLaren Harris
“French Connections,” a program of four works by French composers spanning more than two centuries presented Sunday, January 24, by the Orchestra of Indian Hill and conductor Bruce Hangen, marked the welcome return of violinist Irina Muresanu to the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center.
World-traveled and acclaimed as a soloist and chamber musician, Ms. Muresanu has won hearts with her appearances with the orchestra and at Indian Hill’s Kalliroscope Gallery chamber music series, so that many now consider her part of the extended Indian Hill family. On Sunday afternoon, playing an 18th-century concerto by Joseph Boulogne and a more recent (2002) and imaginative nocturne by Henri Dutilleux, the audience was hers.
The Boulogne and Dutilleux works were book-ended by two larger compositions, Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” and César Franck’s D minor Symphony. Because of relative lengths, the Boulogne concerto was moved to the program’s first half, following “La Mer.” Leaving Dutilleux’s “Sur le même accord” (“About the same chord”) to follow the Debussy work would have made more musical sense; despite the century separating their composition and vastly different musical intents, the two share aspects of lyricism, tonal exploration and instrumental color in transparent, or at least translucent, settings.
Ms. Muresanu produced a focused tone from her 1856 Giuseppe Rocca violin that was finely suited to the light context of the Dutilleux piece, while not lacking for strength, and she negotiated the rapid passages and intervals, both pizzicato and bowed, with unfailing aplomb. The orchestra, scored conservatively by the composer, matched her spirit and energy. As a venture into contemporary musical idioms, this was successful indeed.
Joseph Boulogne, Guadeloupe-born in 1745 of mixed parentage, was granted the noble title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges by virtue of his leadership of the Légion Saint-Georges during the French Revolution. At age 7, he was brought to Paris to be educated and subsequently gained much renown as a swordsman and also as a violin virtuoso and composer. His Violin Concerto in B flat major (not a popular key for strings) shows an early classic style more like C.P.E. Bach or Glück than Haydn or Mozart, but it is capably written with plenty of dashing solo passages, unusual for that era.
The concerto has solo cadenzas in each of the three movements, the first extensive and the others shorter. Ms. Muresanu excelled in all three as elsewhere; her superb tone and style is well matched to classical genres. Although not hard-pressed technically, the small orchestra was a willing and capable partner.
Debussy’s “La Mer” is one of the most beautiful and effective tone paintings ever composed. Who could fail to feel the awakening of the sea in the opening movement, appreciate the whimsical and many-hued motions of waves in the second, shiver at the approach of the tempest in the third or marvel at the raging winds and seas towards the conclusion? Simply put, “La Mer” is pure genius.
The Indian Hill Orchestra came well prepared for the challenge with excellent work from the winds, a sonorous brass “choir,” robust low strings, lyrical cellos and fine solo lines from concertmaster Alice Hallstrom.
For all its apparent popularity, Franck’s Symphony in D minor is for me a problematic work, and I am inclined to side with its critics. Beginning with the fateful question, “Muss es sein?” it seems mired in gloominess (unlike Beethoven’s use of the motif and its bright response in his final string quartet), heavy orchestration and tedious thematic repetition. The undeniably beautiful English horn solo by Jennifer Slowik in the second movement is the symphony’s highlight; it almost makes the other two movements bearable. Almost.
The orchestra, however, shook off the gloom and acquitted itself admirably, with fine phrasing and brass work (e.g., Clark Matthews’s horn) and fearless dynamics, satisfying the large audience. It is worth noting that, for this French program, conductor Bruce Hangen shed his baton, sculpting phrases with bare hands and arms – very appropriate for Impressionist contexts, whether or not you like the term. Bravo Bruce!