Review: A flurry of fiddling for Hartford Symphony concert of American composers at Bushnell

The second Hartford Symphony Masterworks concert of the season literally has the orchestra stomping its feet, snapping its fingers and banging on pots and pans at The Bushnell’s Belding Theater.

This is an evening of rambunctious music guaranteed to get the blood flowing on a cold November night. Two of the four compositions were written in the past six years, and the other two are acknowledged classics from the middle of the 20th century, known for their earthy energy.

The HSO appears as formal and austere as ever but with an undercurrent of hootin’ and hollerin’ as they artfully play symphonic music about cowboys and street gangs.

A movement of one of the featured works is titled “Hoe-down,” while a movement from an entirely different piece by a different composer, written nearly 80 years later, is called “Hootenanny.”

Besides those two pieces — “Hoe-Down” is one of the four “dance episodes” in Aaron Copland’s 1942 “Rodeo,” while “Hootenanny” is drawn from Wynton Marsalis’ 2015 Violin Concerto in D Major — the symphony rocks through Leonard Bernstein’s street brawl of “West Side Story Symphonic Dances.” The program concludes with “All American,” a short 2019 piece by Laura Karpman that includes pots, pans, a chopping board, a trash can lid and a metal baking sheet among its percussion instruments and celebrates the progress made by women composers in the 20th century.

If it all sounds wild, it is. Real rodeos are wilder of course, but it’s fun to see orchestra musicians stomp their feet (in high heels or polished black dress shoes), or yell “Mambo!” (from “West Side Story”'s “Dance in the Gym” sequence) through their COVID-19 masks. The rattling kitchen implements in the Karpman piece aren’t even the noisiest element; not when a sousaphone rears up for a few bars elsewhere in the concert.

Conductor Carolyn Kuan brought the noise, and shaped it elegantly. Her dynamic, physicalized manner at the podium — her knee-high boots evoking the horseriders that inspired Copland while the tails of her signature black waistcoat flap about as she raises her arms majestically — is ideal for such lively, invigorating scores.

But the main excitement is the violin playing, or more accurately the fiddling. Soloist Leonid Sigal (the HSO’s concertmaster) is known for his sensitive playing; a 2015 Courant review of him playing Chausson’s difficult “Poeme” mentioned the violinist’s “mesmerizing lyricism.”

Here, Sigal cuts loose on that uproarious Wynton Marsalis violin concerto, taking the composer’s gloriously frantic solo (which almost has the fire and staccato wail of Marsalis’ own famed trumpet playing) as a personal challenge. He makes his violin whistle, rasp, shriek. The notes fly about like buzzing insects.

Sigal is not about precision here. He’s about emotional intensity. It’s a magnificent performance, heightened by the theatrical flourish of Sigal wandering past the seated musicians around him, toward the exit door, while still playing.

Sigal returns and brings the same delirious playing style to an unannounced bonus offering, a section of Marsalis’ “Fiddle Dance Suite.” This time the audience, as well as the orchestra, is allowed to do some foot stomping.

This was that rare thing, a symphony concert of all American composers which is not used as an excuse to play some Gershwin, whose East Coast sensibility would seem out of place here (with the possible exception of “Porgy and Bess”), even alongside another jazz-rooted composer like Marsalis.

Also remarkable: a symphony concert where “West Side Story” is the tamest, stodgiest thing on the bill. Not that it’s a bad choice: Bernstein’s “symphonic dance” revision of his musical score has been warmly embraced by orchestras for decades. Its title can confuse: “West Side Story” is seldom danced outside of its original musical theater version, and few choreographers have done fresh dances to this one. What it is is a smooth reorchestration of the main themes and melodies of “West Side Story” by its composer, unencumbered by lyrics or dialogue (save for that sole shout of “Mambo!”), much more than an overture while much less than a fully staged musical (or dance for that matter). There’s a jazzier, more fluid and unified feel than the stage score. The various parts of “West Side Story,” some rowdy and some romantic, blend together, but in a uniform way that easily lets you recall the dramatic scenes of this landmark Broadway update of “Romeo and Juliet.” It builds gorgeously into turmoil, a thundercloud which the dainty “Somewhere” cuts through like a ray of sunlight. Knowing that audience members have the stage or film version in their heads, maestro Kuan holds her baton for a long silent dramatic pause at the end of the piece before she allows the audience to applaud.

Following the Copland (with the symphony playing all four “Rodeo” episodes, not just the best-known “Hoe-down” but also “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne” and “Saturday Night Waltz” as well), the Marsalis (the lengthy “Blues” and “Hootenanny” sections of the four-part concerto) and the 25 action-packed minutes of Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” Laura Karpman’s six-minute “All American” can seem an underwhelming end to the evening, but honestly, what could follow those titanic works? “All American” is intricate and complex even while being clattery and bombastic. She quotes rousing compositions from female composers like Emily Wood Bower and Mildred Hill. It’s largely a patriotic (matriotic, we should say) anthem based around a tricky rhythm which, as Kuan explained, denotes the uneven and bumpy path women have often had to tread.

This is the first time that Kuan — the first female conductor of the HSO, which she has led for a decade now — has conducted the full orchestra in the Bushnell since the COVID-19 pandemic. (The September season-opener had a guest composer, Joseph Young.)

The experience of attending the symphony over the weekend was slightly different than a month ago, when the “Masterworks” concert season started. There was no projection screen above the stage this time — last time it was there to provide visual accompaniment and instructions for an audience-participation piece, but also offered unmissable reminders to keep one’s mask on. The ushers’ “Please mask up” signs were more prominent. Attendance was reasonable, but with whole swaths of empty seats. As with the previous concert, there was a big show in the main Mortensen Hall (this time it’s “Rent,” ending Sunday) at the same time the HSO was fiddling away in The Bushnell’s smaller 900-seat Belding Theater.

The musical “West Side Story” has of course played the big hall at The Bushnell many times. “Rodeo,” not so much.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s “Copland, Bernstein” concert has one remaining performance: Nov. 7 at 3 p.m. in the Belding Theater at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $38 to $72.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at