The Hartford Symphony Orchestra announced the programs for its 2013-14 70th anniversary season yesterday. And I'm here today to congratulate them on a job well done, at least on their "Masterworks" (i.e., classical) concerts. Frankly, I don't have enough of a feel for pops concerts to know what works, or to have a well-formed opinion on what might be tried, so I'll leave them alone.
What tickles my fancy? Well, right off the bat, the HSO gets on my good side for bringing in the divine Wu Man (earlier blog on her here) to play the late Lou Harrison's absolutely fabulous Concerto for Pipa, providing a plucky and piquant contrast to the high-calorie richness of Camille Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony. That's smart programming — a smooth integration of novel sounds and an appealing personality into a standard symphonic concert. And how about the imaginative match-up of the infectious rhythms of Beethoven's 7th Symphony with Leonard Bernstein's jazzy ballet Fancy Free and Astor Piazzolla's tango-filled "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires?" I dare anyone to leave the Bushnell on those nights without a big smile.
Not every concert of the season reaches such giddy heights or exhibits quite the same level of imagination. But with the possible exception of former music director Edward Cumming's May programs of Brahms and Dvořák — solid enough but not especially exciting — each concert has something extraordinary going for it, something to make you really want to be there. One night it's a special staging of Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. On another occasion, it's a strikingly apt paring of two very different but oddly compatible works exploring the darker side of the human spirit, Leonard Bernstein's first classical masterwork, his "Jeremiah" Symphony, and Mozart's Requiem. There's former HSO conductor, Michael Lankester, going for broke with not one but two romantic masterworks, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Bruckner's Symphony No. 3. And to top it all off, Ravel's "Boléro," featuring the UConn Drumline, is showcased on a program also featuring the classical electronica of young composer/DJ Mason Bates. That ought to raise the roof! Good for the HSO for including real honest-to-goodness new music on the series, rather than just (as their major-market neighbors to the northeast and southwest have often done) package up last century's avant-garde with last decade's mainstream and call it "new."
Indeed, a sense of abundance and exuberance, and a "go for it" spirit, pervade the entire upcoming season. For an orchestra outside the big-city mainstream (where, as we know, there are plenty of other challenges) and in tough economic times, it's a daringly ambitious menu. But as the arts gurus counsel (Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser is a good example), when times are challenging, don't stint on programming. Instead, give 'em your best. Each and every time. That's what the Hartford Symphony has done for next season. Kudos to Music Director Carolyn Kuan (who had her contract extended through 2015-16) and the rest of the team. I hope they fill every seat.
(Photos, left to right: Carolyn Kuan, Wu Man, Mason Bates)