Hartford Symphony Orchestra has a fresh, festive take on Tchaikovsky and Grieg

·5 min read

If the latest Masterworks concert from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra had a theme, it might be “creepy things happening around trees.” But the “Tchaikovsky & Grieg” concert, which has two remaining performances at The Bushnell Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 3 p.m., is also a feel-good show of familiar classical hits.

There are many instantly recognizable passages grounding the evening, and unlike the previous two Masterworks concerts there are no 21st century compositions to balance the classics.

What makes the concert special is how it changes the perspective of how we usually appreciate such well-known works.

We hear Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” not only without the distraction of ballet dancers dressed as mice, but without its opening party scene.

The symphony performs just the second half of “The Nutcracker”'s first act. That’s the section where things starts to get weird. The clock strikes 12, the tree grows, mice fight with swords, a Nutcracker becomes a person and snowflakes waltz. We get to imagine all those images for ourselves, because while the symphony has a projection in use for another part of the evening (as well as intermissions, to remind everyone to put on masks and turn off cellphones) they wisely don’t provide visuals or narrative text here. If you know the story (and if you don’t, there are a dozens of “Nutcrackers” happening around the state this month), there are plenty of musical cues to remind you of where the tale’s awestruck heroine Clara is at.

As a conductor, HSO music director Carolyn Kuan’s true gift is being able to make each element of a complex classical work distinctive, clear, its own precious thing as well as a critical part of the work as a whole. She does that here with the sounds of toys, the expanding tree, saber-rattling rodents and terpsichorean precipitation.

The other piece the symphony plays in the first half of the concert, Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” is, like “The Nutcracker,” story-driven without any emphasis being put on the story, which is purposefully incomplete. In the case of “Peer Gynt,” the scenes are also out of order. Grieg wrote them as incidental music for Ibsen’s epic about a gloomy globetrotter, for a major revival of the play in Norway (where both the playwright and the composer hailed from) in 1876.

The symphony does six of the dozens of scenes Grieg scored. It doesn’t perform the big happy wedding number, but does do the abduction of the bride following that wedding. It places Peer Gynt’s end-of-play homecoming early on in the set and ends with “Hall of the Mountain King.” That crashing, suspenseful din (which, in Ibsen’s play, marks the emergence of a horde of trolls from a spooky tree-lined mountain) is by far the Peer Gynt suite’s most popular section. Indeed, it’s one of the most popular pieces in all of classical music, also covered by a slew of jazz and rock bands from Duke Ellington to The Who to ELO, and the way the HSO has placed it, it sounds like a rock concert where the band’s biggest hit has been saved for last.

With both “Nutcracker” and “Peer Gynt,” the Hartford Symphony lets you hear things you wouldn’t otherwise be listening for. Kuan and the musicians ask us to focus on transitions and transformations, not plot points or spirited dances. In both cases, you’re pretty far into these works before their more recognizable melodies are allowed to emerge. Lopping off the grand introductions is a smart move.

The second half of the “Tchaikovsky & Grieg” concert is all Grieg, the composer’s famed piano concerto, performed with a relish and flourish by the entrancing Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez. There’s no editing or refocusing this time, just a long, intricate piece being exquisitely played.

A camera and projection screen are positioned above the grand piano so the audience can be given a bird’s eye view of Martinez’s hands as she performs. It’s hard to take your eyes from the screen, but there’s plenty about Martinez’s performance that catches your eye without that technological assist. On Friday night she wore a black mask, a black shawl and a shiny glittering striped dress that could have doubled for Christmas wrapping paper. She’s not a flashy player. She doesn’t attack the keys or wave her long blonde hair about. (On Friday it was in a pony tail.) But Martinez has a glorious way of stretching her arms out when she’s just tackled a particularly intense section. Watching her play is like watching a cool, confident long-distance runner.

Martinez’s graceful yet firm playing evokes not just high classical skills but centuries of popular music involving the piano. For the freer moments, her fingers move like a jazz player. In her style, you can hear how Grieg influenced French composers like Debussy, who in turn influenced George Gershwin.

“Tchaikovsky & Grieg” is some kind of holiday concert, but really more of a winter-friendly dreamscape of escape and adventure. Hartford Symphony has a more Christmassy concert in store Dec. 11 when it brings back “Holiday Cirque” for two performances at 2 and 7 p.m. For that, acrobats, aerialists and contortionists from Cirque de la Symphonie glide and tumble while the HSO plays carols and other Christmas melodies, and much less is left to the listener’s imagination.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s “Tchaikovsky & Grieg” Masterworks concert has its final performance Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. $35-$68. hartfordsymphony.org.

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