Guest post by McLaren Harris
There wasn’t much question about which work on the Orchestra of Indian Hill program of Saturday, November 16, was the most popular and most anticipated. Of the three works by Brahms, Benjamin Britten and Henri Tomasi, chosen by conductor Bruce Hangen, Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 has stood near the top of classical charts for more than a century. The audience quickly learned, however, that the other works have their virtues as well — perhaps especially Tomasi’s Concerto for Trumpet, which featured the skill and artistry of Boston Symphony principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs.
The Tomasi concerto is by turns martial and lyrical, with both fanfare-like calls and sustained passages. Rolfs later admitted that he finds the work somewhat daunting because of its angular lines, quick register changes and interweaving of phrases for muted and natural horns, some rapid enough to require him to stow the mute under his left arm for easy retrieval.
Daunted or not, Rolf’s playing was accurate and assured throughout, full-toned and dynamically controlled in the first movement’s jazz-like figures and the cadenza, the contemplative second movement and the playful finale. His partnership with the orchestra was close and secure, and the audience gave them much applause.
Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem has a curious history, having been commissioned by the Empire of Japan to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the empire. Coming just at the dawn of World War II, Britten must have had doubts about the commission, because the work he submitted uses three sections of the Christian Requiem Mass (Lacrymosa, Dies irae and Requiem aeternam) as its inspiration — categorically not what the Japanese expected, and they rejected it. But it lives on.
As an antiwar statement and a memorial to his parents, the Sinfonia da Requiem is an eloquent and expertly composed work, emotionally compelling, with a succession of climaxes in the Dies irae and hushed resolution in the final movement. Britten’s orchestration is brilliantly varied and many-colored, and the orchestra’s musicians gave it full voice.
The Brahms Fourth Symphony is among the most intense and most revered in the romantic repertory, although it was not always so. Some critics nicknamed it the “Triangle Symphony” from its use of that instrument in the wildly joyous third movement. Parts of the work hark back to earlier eras — the Phrygian modality of the second movements themes and the relentless, irresistible chaconne that underpins the last movement.
Credits for outstanding work could go to many of the orchestra’s members, among whom were flutist Melissa Mielens and clarinetist Margo McGowan — and, certainly not least, conductor Bruce Hangen himself. He is likely the orchestra’s most precious treasure, tackling works of every period, every form and every musical style with thorough preparation, confident understanding, and sure-handed leadership.
McLaren Harris is a former music critic and journalist and a long-time writer in public relations and marketing communications for high-technology companies.