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January 24, 2016 - French Connections

French Composers Take the Stage For Indian Hill Orchestra Concert

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 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!

November 14, 2015 - All-Mendelssohn

A 'Perfect' Violin Concerto Tops Indian Hill's Mendelssohn Program

by McLaren Harris
In the late classical and early romantic eras, three composers  – Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn – stood out for two things: their early-flowering musical genius, and their unfortunately short lives. After leaving large catalogues of brilliantly composed works in several genres, all three died in their 30s.

On Saturday night (November 14) at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center, the Orchestra of Indian Hill, under the direction of conductor Bruce Hangen, presented three works by Felix Mendelssohn – the Violin Concerto with soloist Juliette Kang, a “Trumpet” Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 -- with the classic-romantic themes, harmonies and dramatic forms that have endeared him to audiences for the better part of 200 years.

The E minor Violin Concerto is a favorite of violinists and audiences alike, full of musical felicity, albeit with less dramatic weight than other concertos by Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky. It has long been hailed as a perfect vehicle, technically and musically, for its solo instrument.

Soloist Juliette Kang is first assistant concertmaster for the Philadelphia Orchestra, having come from the Boston Symphony a decade ago. She has soloed with many of the world's major orchestras under as many well known conductors in as many famous concert halls – a true musical celebrity and, may we say, violin virtuoso. Her performance was as close to perfect as one could hope, with exquisite phrasing, flawless intonation in all contexts and a secure, beautiful tone from the first note to the last. She was rewarded with cheers and a standing ovation that could have stretched through the following intermission.

The opening work was a concert overture, curiously dubbed the “Trumpet Overture” by Mendelssohn's family apparently because, yes, it has trumpets. No program, no solo parts, just a lively and cheerful piece which showed that, at age 16, Mendelssohn had already achieved compositional maturity and mastery. A year later he composed another overture that, 18 years afterward, he incorporated flawlessly into his Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream – a feat of true genius. The “Trumpet Overture”, misnomer or not, was given a fine reading by the orchestra.

Conductor Hangen and the orchestra did equally well with the A minor “Scottish” Symphony No. 3, which echos some Scottish musical idioms especially in the second movement's principal theme and in the first movement's rise-and-fall evoking the wind off the Hebrides. Principals Steve Jackson, clarinet, Melissa Mielens, flute, and Nancy Dimock, oboe, sparkled in the tuneful second movement, the strings proved dynamic throughout, and the brass gave triumphal force to the final bars.


March 1, 2015 - Beethoven & Bloch

Indian Hill Orchestra & Cellist Mihail Jojatu in Top Form

by McLaren Harris
The Orchestra of Indian Hill, conductor Bruce Hangen and Ludwig van Beethoven collaborated on Sunday, March 1, at the Littleton Performing Arts Center to craft a remarkable musical achievement: Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony, arguably the finest work in the entire symphonic repertoire, and the high levels of instrumental skill and interpretative artistry of an orchestra and conductor in top form.

Beethoven's Third Symphony took the afternoon's top prize, if any were to be given, but Mihail Jojatu's solo performance in Ernst Bloch's “Schelomo” rhapsody for cello and orchestra also received much deserved acclaim, coming second in a program that opened with Jennifer Higdon's tone painting, “Blue Cathedral.”

Now more than 200 years old, the “Eroica” Symphony is well loved and well understood, but it still never fails to amaze the listener with its innovative ingenuity and brilliance, coming on the heels of the Viennese Classical tradition exemplified by Mozart and Haydn. Harmonic dissonance and repeated diminished seventh chords preceding their resolution, the hush and the agony of the “Marche funébre,” the quick tempo and bold use of the horns in the scherzo (no minuet!), and the contrapuntal development in the finale all proclaimed a new era in symphonic history.

The orchestra appeared ready to play its role in this “revolution,” taking its cues from Bruce Hangen's vigorous and sweeping arm gestures, shaking shoulders and mindful attention to every passage. Nancy Dimock's tenderly mournful oboe lines, Melissa Mielens's flute brilliance and the horn section's full-voiced resonance are worthy of special mention. As a whole, the orchestra expressed its determination to do their utmost for this monumental work.

Mihail Jojatu, now a Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist, is also well known to Indian Hill audiences from his work with the orchestra and chamber ensembles. He has the technical skill to handle the demands of Bloch's “Schelomo,” and what's more, he possesses the spirit and understanding to grasp the emotional significance and depth of the religious and secular struggles that formed the inspiration of Bloch's writing. It embraces the moving, often violent history recounted in the Jewish Bible, expressing the emotions and the “soul,” as Bloch put it, of Jewish tradition, rather than an attempt to imitate Jewish musical styles.

Jojatu's fulsome cello timbres, sure control throughout the instrument's range and dynamic energy fulfilled Bloch's vision and made it accessible as an Old Testament companion. It earned him – both of them – a standing ovation.

Jennifer Higdon has more performances and awards to her credit than her familiarity on programs would indicate. Her musical vision in “Blue Cathedral” is brought out in varied, even lush instrumental colors, expressing a surreal feeling of walking through a vast cathedral and casting eyes upward through a crystalline structure towards the blue of the heavens. While somewhat ambiguous thematically and formally, it is tonally receptive and well connected to the vision. The Indian Hill musicians gave it a sure and sensitive reading.


April 16, 2014 - Season Finale

The Orchestra of Indian Hill and Mahler

by McLaren Harris
Audiences that have attended this past season's concerts by the Orchestra of Indian Hill have been rewarded with performances that could have come from any major, first-rank orchestra around.  On Sunday, April 16 at the Littleton Performing Arts Center, their high expectations were fulfilled, even extended.

Conductor Bruce Hangen chose a program comprising Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture, a lush and festive crash-banger if there ever were one, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with Indian Hill student concerto competition winner Anshuman Das, and Gustav Mahler's towering D major Symphony No. 1, the "Titan".

Mahler's symphonies, once regarded as nearly incomprehensible and overbearing, have become listener favorites, drawing large audiences whenever an organization has the courage to present them.  And courage it takes; the Symphony No. 1, like his others, is almost frighteningly difficult, not only in the individual parts but also in the remarkable transparence of the orchestration.  Every part, every solo stands out, and just about any slip is likely to be noticed.  The great dynamic range, the variety of moods and textures and the multitude of instrumental colors can wring the last ounce of musicianship from an orchestra.

If anyone in the audience feared the outcome, the Indian Hill players did not; they climbed every peak, descended every abyss and rose again with brilliance and determination to realize Mahler's intents.  The hushed beginning, the awakening off-stage trumpet calls foretold the excitement to follow -- horn fanfares, the rollicking Scherzo, the third movement's faintly mocking, yet tender funeral march, and the cataclysmic, ultimately triumphant finale.  Every section contributed its full voice -- lyrical string work in all movements (those take-charge violas in the finale!), sparkling woodwinds with the piccolo at their apex, outstanding brass playing along with seven "bells-up" horns near the end, and the curtain of percussion thunder that brought the work to a close.

Among too many players to recognize, one must begin with conductor Bruce Hangen himself, who sculpted those wonderful, scooped phrases in the second and third movements and managed every tempo and dynamic change, no matter how abrupt.  Also to be mentioned are Kevin Ann Green, principal bassist who intoned the minor-key "Frère Jacques" theme of the funeral march in an uncharacteristic role, Alice Hallstrom's superb violin solo passages, and the indispensably distinctive harp timbres from Deborah Feld-Fabisiewicz.

Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" brought Anshuman Das's second appearance with the orchestra as an Indian Hill competition winner; two years ago he played the opening movement from Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto.  His talent has certainly not shrunk; he attacked the keyboard with authority, plumbed the extremes of register and relished Gershwin's dance-like rhythms with veteran skill -- no small accomplishment for someone so young.  He and the orchestra shared a standing ovation.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture is everything one might expect from a romantic master of orchestration -- dazzling instrumental color, dashing tempos, deliciously rendered phrasing, a beautiful trombone chant by Alexei Doohovskoy, and a rousing, celebratory finish.  In the orchestra's enthusiastic manner, it could make a solid finale in any other context.  But this time, Mahler ruled the day.


November 16, 2013 - The Trumpet Shall Sound

Trumpet Brilliance, Symphonic Favorite

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.


January 27, 2013 - Elegantly Sublime

by John Ehrlich, Boston Music Intelligencer
Abetted by the singular talents of two excellent soloists, French Horn player Eric Ruske, and tenor Rockland Osgood, The Orchestra of Indian Hill made an excellent showing Sunday at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center in the third outing of its six-concert season with a demanding program of Stravinsky, Mozart, and Britten. As an introduction I am re-posting the introduction to my earlier review of this estimable ensemble:

A treasure of Boston's Metro West is The Orchestra of Indian Hill, an eye and ear-opening ensemble of some 75 professional instrumentalists, which has been offering a varied and happily top-notch series of concerts to its very loyal supporters and patrons since 1975. The orchestra has prospered under the leadership its present Artistic Director and Conductor Bruce Hangen since 1997, so much so that the ensemble is now regularly heard in very demanding programs that raise the bar for so-called regional orchestra proficiency and virtuosity. Many of the orchestra's regular players are seasoned veterans of the Boston freelance pool of instrumentalists who play regularly with the city's most prestigious choral and orchestral ensembles.  Hangen, too, is no stranger to greater Boston audiences, having been Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Pops in over 300 concerts over the past 30 years. He is also Director of Orchestral Activities at Boston Conservatory, and conductor of that school's orchestra. Mr. Hangen, in short has paid his dues, and it shows quite brilliantly in Littleton, where the Indian Hill Orchestra performs a six-concert symphonic season. Lucky indeed, those classical music lovers of the western suburbs to have an orchestra of such distinction in their nearby environs.

This Sunday, Igor Stravinsky's Concerto in D for Strings made for a bracing opener, with Mr. Hangen's clear directing easing some of the difficulties of Stravinsky's idiomatic yet uncompromisingly demanding writing.  The Indian Hill string players were with him all the way in this engaging but somewhat odd composition that occasionally seems obsessed with maneuvering over and under a fixed pitch and tonality, often centered on a minor-second interval.  Yet it also can also offer a superb Arioso in its second movement that spins out one of this craggy composer's most sustained and elegant melodies.

Eric Ruske then came on stage to play Mozart's delightful Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 495.   It was a fine outing for both Ruske and the Orchestra, with Hangen setting ideal tempi throughout the work, allowing all the subtleties and nuances of this remarkable concerto to focus and coalesce.  The bountiful applause at the concerto's conclusion may have demonstrated the audience's gratitude to the players for returning to more familiar tonal territory, but certainly also its admiration for Mr. Ruske's no-nonsense approach to this elegant, and in its irrepressible fourth movement, rollicking music.

Rockland Osgood is one of music's true treasures, a stylish tenor of very broad repertoire, all of which he invests with thoughtful preparation and invariably elegant voice.  His artful singing was the perfect match to Benjamin Britten's superb 1943 Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, a work that demands depth of emotion, musical high-mindedness, and of course superb technique from all its performers.  Britten was a potent musical force in the late 20th-century and he created a large body of work that continually astonishes for its superb craftsmanship and range.  TheSerenade's magical combination of the varied timbres of the French Horn, tenor voice, and string orchestra—not forgetting the cannily selected wide-ranging poetry—elevate this music to near the top of this composer's oeuvre.  Hangen, Ruske, and Osgood never failed to remind us of this in their traversal of this very deep music, and the Indian Hill Strings were admirably equal partners.

I admit it was difficult for me to adjust to the switch from the magical Britten Serenade�to Mozart's Olympian Symphony No. 41 in C-major, K. 551, "Jupiter."� Could two compositions be more different from one another?� Having said this, though, I found that Hangen and the now full complement of Indian Hill players gave a robust account of this amazing symphony, its final movement's contrapuntal miracles being especially well realized in this performance.

That the local population is highly appreciative of Indian Hill's Orchestra was clearly evident.  The lengthy program book abounds with ads from local businesses, the professionalism of the management and staff is palpable, and Hangen's rapport with his audience is obvious by his well-attended pre-concert talks and his post-concert "from-the-stage" Q and A sessions.  And, once again the large hall was virtually sold out, packed with thankfully silent and attentive admirers.  Bravo!

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.


November 17, 2012 - Pathos and Passion

Two Faces of Tchaikovsky Bring An Ovation at Indian Hill Concert

by McLaren Harris
Two poles-apart moods of Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky divided up the Orchestra of Indian Hill's concert Saturday evening, Nov. 17, conducted by Artistic Director Bruce Hangen at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center – bright and tuneful in the Violin Concerto in D, predominantly somber and despairing in the Symphony No. 6, the "Pathétique." But there was no mistaking the unanimity and near-jubilation of the ovation that followed Ryu Goto's solo performance in the concerto, which concluded the program.

The Concerto is consistently positive and upbeat with many singable melodies and instrumental bravura in the outer movements and a lushly romantic Andante. At its introduction, critics were disappointed and considered it a bit shallow because it didn't match the seriousness and drama of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti. Not until after Tchaikovsky's death did it gain audience favor, but now it is among the most popular and admired works for the violin.

The combination of rich lyricism and technical challenge might pose difficulties for a lesser soloist, but after hearing Ryu Goto dash off some Paganini variations on an aria by Giovanni Paisiello during the concert prelude, we were certain he wouldn't miss a note – and he didn't. His fingers danced over the fingerboard with unerring accuracy and his bowing coordination was flawless. He set a lightning tempo for the finale and dared the orchestra to match it, which the Indian Hill musicians without hesitation. This performance was more than bravura – it was truly vivacissimo, and the audience loved every measure. A complete rendition of the same Paganini variations that Goto offered as an encore was as delicious as frosting and whipped cream.

Goto's violin, a 1715 Stradivarius known in violin circles as the "Ex-Pierre Rode" and the "Duke of Cambridge," shared the spotlight. What a marvel of art and craftsmanship it is – fulsome-toned and responsive with hall-filling sound in all registers. Even the high harmonics were stable and pinpoint (no small credit to the violinist). The violin is on permanent loan to Goto by the Japanese non-profit "Yellow Angel" – and there it should stay, each a perfect complement to the other.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony in B minor is from an opposite mold, beginning and ending in the low strings and bassoons, moody and forlorn in the first movement and increasingly tragic in the finale, with some musical escapism in between. Recognizable themes include the second from the opening movement, used in a number of films and programs including the 1940s radio soap opera, "Road of Life." The second movement is a release from the first with a lilting, sort of truncated waltz in 5/4. The third is a total denial of doom with martial bombast and a thundering climax, but it is immediately followed by a monumental sigh of despair that recurs again and again.

Many are tempted to connect its premiere with Tchaikovsky's death from cholera just over a week later, but carelessness in drinking unboiled water is the more likely reason.

Conductor Bruce Hangen and the orchestra were not put off in the slightest by the dark moods, attacking each passage with intensity and purpose, sailing gracefully through the "waltz," building a cataclysm of ringing brass, agile woodwinds vigorous string-playing and powerful percussion in the strict-rhythm marching Allegro, then giving full voice to the agonizing lament of the finale in its final descent toward extinction. This was no small feat for the orchestra to negotiate such stretches of dynamics and textures, here delicate, there raging. The players rose to each moment, leaving little wanting.

October 20, 2012 - Nature's Dance: OPENING NIGHT

A Rousing Opener of Brahms, Birds, and Ravel

by McLaren Harris
To describe the season-opening concert Saturday (Oct. 20) of the Orchestra of Indian Hill, a phrase often used by newly elected officeholders comes to mind:  "Hit the ground running."  While such intentions are rarely achieved in politics, the words fit perfectly Saturday night's performance at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center.

Four works by Brahms, Ravel and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara showed the orchestra under artistic director Bruce Hangen at its seasoned and mature finest.  No staid, heavy symphonic program, this – Brahms's beloved "Academic Festival" Overture, two works by Maurice Ravel, who is never, ever dull, a brilliant pianistic feast by soloist Inesa Gegprifti, and a highly imaginative "concerto" by Rautavaara, straight from nature itself.

Brahms's overture is an orchestral medley of drinking songs from 19th-century Germany, composed in response to his receipt of an honorary degree from the University of Breslau.  Far from the sober and dignified piece the university's elders probably expected, after 140 years it is still among the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire.  The Indian Hill musicians gave it full voice, with gusto and a stein in every hand, even prompting a smattering of premature applause.

Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus", composed in 1970 on a commission from the University of Oulu, combines a recording, made by the composer himself of birds of the marshes and shores of northern Finland, with standard orchestra.  It conveys a feeling of wandering in open spaces, at first hearing choruses of bog birds, then a somber section featuring an altered and lowered song of a shore lark, and finally approaching and departing flocks of migrating swans.  It is generally tonal and quiescent, save for the crescendo of the great flock of swans, which dies away at the end.  Overall, it well realizes the composer's intentions and may take its place among familiar orchestral fare.

The two works by Maurice Ravel, his Piano Concerto in G and the second suite from the ballet, "Daphnis et Chloé," are, in their separate genres, eloquent testimony to Ravel's genius as composer and orchestrator.  The concerto's three movements are in fast-slow-fast order, brilliant and dashing outer movements surrounding a romantic middle movement of surpassingly lyric, tender, sorrowful and yearning musical memories.

Inesa Gegprifti, the program's headliner as piano soloist, showed her virtuosity from the opening whip-crack, leading the charge with authority as well as dexterity in the changing rhythms and accents, hushed and passionate in the Adagio and concluding with a flourish in the final Presto.  This concerto is a virtuoso work for both soloist and the orchestra, which matched Ms. Gegprifti's energy with agility in the winds and snappy attacks from the brass. The audience's extended applause bespoke shared joy.

The three-sectioned Suite No. 2 from the ballet, "Daphnis et Chloé," opens with a lush tone-painting of a sunrise, followed by a musical dialogue between the two lovers with an extensive – and difficult – flute solo, for which principal flutist Melissa Mielens deserves special admiration.  The concluding "Danse générale" is a true bacchanal of increasing and unbridled celebration.

The musical energy and dazzling orchestration by Ravel – a talent equaled perhaps by only one other, his earlier countryman Hector Berlioz – are red meat for a capably prepared ensemble like that of Indian Hill.  The full range of strings, the colorful twittering of woodwinds, that almost surreal flute solo, the high-register notes from the French horn, ethereal harp sounds, the booming percussion and the commanding brilliance of the brass could not help but thrill the listeners, who now have every reason to return for more.

April 14, 2012 - Showcasing Our Own Musicians

Indian Hill Orchestra Shows Diverse Talents, Delights Capacity Audience

by McLaren Harris
There was something for everyone in Saturday night's (April 14) concert by the Orchestra of Indian Hill at the Littleton Performing Arts Center – not just for the full-house audience but also for every member of the orchestra. In a program of six works that could have been titled "Indian Hill on Parade" or even "That's Entertainment!", every section and every instrument was featured one way or another, culminating in Benjamin Britten's well known "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra."

As Music Director Bruce Hangen described it, many instruments are hidden from view by the massive string sections at the front of the stage, so he designed a program to bring them all to the fore, to be recognized and appreciated. He wasted no time by introducing the percussion section, usually relegated to the rear of the stage and considered by many to be marginally musical, in "Ogoun Badagris," a five-minute piece based on Haitian dance drumming patterns by Christopher Rouse, now the New York Philharmonic's composer-in-residence.

In an atmosphere reminiscent of the Juba dance and Voodoo rituals, increasingly complex rhythms build to an orgiastic, frenzied conclusion. Along the way, listeners were treated to a wild diversity of sounds from both familiar and unfamiliar instruments that were shaken, scraped, tapped, struck, pulled, pounded and rung. The work delighted the audience and undoubtedly the performers as well; the only mystery is why this 35-year-old work is heard so seldom.

Next was the brass section's turn, along with timpani and large drums, in Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a triumphant, almost shattering, now-beloved tribute to the common soldiers who fight the nation's wars. The orchestra's musicians gave it its due in full volumes of resonant brass glory and percussive thunder.

Woodwinds (minus flutes) and horns came into the light with Dvorak's D minor Serenade for Winds, Op 44. Sitting between Mozart's almost symphonic serenades and the fully orchestrated Serenades of Brahms, it is by turns sternly martial, lyrical, dancing, harmonically and melodically appealing – in short, a romantic jewel. The players, led by oboist Jennifer Slowik, filled it with both charm and energy.

The Indian Hill Music School holds an annual Student Concerto Competition, and this year's winner is Anshuman Das, age 15, who began piano lessons at age 5. He chose the opening movement of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, a bright and entertaining piece with catchy rhythms and dynamic twists. Das and the orchestra pursued each other in now quiet, now rapid-fire dialogue; he is unafraid of a technical challenge, accomplished the fugal passages flawlessly and almost dared the orchestra to keep up with him. Such a nascent talent should be heard and appreciated as it develops.

Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso for strings with piano obbligato, which opened the second half, is a full-voiced, 20th-century expression of one of the Baroque era's favorite forms. Its four movements, especially the last, seem lifted almost directly from the time of Bach. Pianist Monica Tessitore modified the usual role of soloist to that of the continuo or "framework builder" with aplomb, applying the right formula of harmonic support and tonal color.

Britten's "Young Person's Guide," the program's largest work, was also the most familiar. Often performed with a narrator, it works better and more cohesively without interruption. Conductor Hangen and the orchestra's musicians brought each section into well defined relief, leading both the work and the program to a stirring conclusion – neither the least nor the only occasion for loud applause.

February 26, 2012 - Choral Spectacular

A Regional Choral Spectacular Resonates for Indian Hill Audience

by McLaren Harris

More than 80 singers from the rolling hills, towns and farms throughout the Nashoba Valley joined with the Orchestra of Indian Hill and four outstanding soloists Sunday afternoon (Feb. 26) at the Littleton Performing Arts Center to present two choral masterpieces in a performance that could rival those in the most celebrated concert halls across the region – or the country.

Members of the Harvard Pro Musica and the Nashoba Valley Chorale and soloists Susan Bonito, soprano, alto Gale Fuller, tenor Joseph Holmes and baritone Aaron Engebreth made Sunday's concert a special occasion for the Indian Hill audience. Artistic Director Bruce Hangen conducted Haydn's Mass No. 14, the "Harmoniemesse", and Stravinsky's three-movement Symphony of Psalms on a stage packed with 150 vocalists and instrumentalists – a rare spectacle for this venue and possibly for many of the listeners.

The Harmoniemesse was Haydn's last mass, composed late in his life at the peak of his musical creativity. It is a work of great sonority – broad structures of vocal and orchestral sound, dynamic variety and pleasing harmonies (although "Harmonie" refers more to the instrumentation than to harmony as such). It contains a reverent hush in the "Incarnatus," an unexpected quiet in the Sanctus and a lighthearted Benedictus; overall, its richness captures the listener's ear and attention throughout.

The shorter Symphony of Psalms sets verses of supplication from Psalm 38, thanksgiving from Psalm 39, and the great hymn of praise of Psalm 150. It is unmistakably Stravinskian, with some challenging vocal and instrumental lines and rhythmic identity leading to a grand conclusion, but in comparison to some earlier works, it is relatively restrained and represents a very personal expression of his faith.

The most satisfying aspects of both performances were their cohesiveness and balance. The combined choruses enjoyed equal prominence with the orchestra and were never overwhelmed. The Haydn mass bespoke choral and orchestral grandeur, and the singers negotiated the angular lines in the Stravinsky work with confidence. The voices of the solo quartet blended remarkably well, both vocally and dynamically. Susan Bonito's soprano was beautifully lyrical in the "Incarnatus," as was Joseph Holmes's tenor; together, the four soloists shared deserved praise from an appreciative audience.

Praise also goes to Harvard Pro Musica director Mark Bennett and Nashoba Valley Chorale director Anne Watson Born, who prepared their organizations with evident care and expertise.

January 22, 2012 - Orchestra's Choice

Dancing Debussy, Mighty Mahler Ignite Stark Contrast by Indian Hill Orchestra

by McLaren Harris

Musicians appreciate a challenge that offers an opportunity to stretch their artistic horizons as well as their technical skills, so the choice by the Orchestra of Indian Hill and Artistic Director Bruce Hangen to headline the program Sunday (January 22) at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center should come as no surprise: Gustav Mahler's towering Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor.

This 70-minute behemoth – in more ways than one – was paired with a Claude Debussy miniature, the brief, first meditative, then lightly playful Danses sacrée et profane for harp and strings. Remarkably, these polar opposites in the orchestral repertoire were written in the same year (1901) and launched the audience on an almost mind-bending leap from impressionist Debussy to post-romantic Mahler.

Mahler's first four symphonies have been described, fancifully, as a step-by-step trip to heaven, from human striving in the Symphony No. 1, through suffering and resurrection (No 2), the cheerful comfort of No. 3, finally arriving at a childlike vision of heaven in No. 4. Even if there were something to that narrative (Mahler would disown it), the Fifth departs entirely from that imagined scheme; in five movements, its succeeding atmospheres of despair, rage, exuberance, love and joyous victory are purely, deeply felt and strongly expressed human emotions. The mold is broken; although the forms are more or less traditional, the signature key of C sharp minor applies only to the opening movement.

To support Mahler's symphonic architecture and great reaches of expression, the Fifth requires a very large ensemble comprising the usual sections plus doubling among the woodwinds and horns and a full battery of percussion, all used to maximum effect. Notwithstanding the large numbers, Mahler's orchestral textures are amazingly transparent, with great masses of sound and the rushing, complex polyphony of so many lines interspersed with passages of chamber-like clarity, using just one or a few instruments. One is left to wonder how Mahler could have conceived, organized and brought forth such an overarching musical cosmos.

One also wonders how the players of the Orchestra of Indian Hill could maintain their poise and purpose in such a wild universe – now quiet, now bombastic, now frenzied, now surpassingly tender. Conductor Hangen saw that they did, through urging, holding back, addressing every section, mindful of the pitfalls, even taking extra moments between movements for all to regain their bearings. The first movement was sternly funereal, the second reacted in anger, the third released a torrent of positive energy, the fourth's harp and strings bespoke love and lushness – possibly the most sensuous piece of music ever written – and the fifth culminated in a glorious affirmation of joy.

Note-perfect? What Mahler performance is? Fully expressed, fully felt? Yes, indeed, evidenced by the standing ovation that followed the triumphant conclusion.

Let us not forget the opening Debussy dances, so beautifully highlighted by the artistry of harpist Deborah Feld-Fabisiewicz and delicately sculpted by the orchestra's strings. Overpowered by the Mahler? Never. Though worlds apart in conception and realization, these works carved their own indelible impressions in every listener's mind and memory.

October 22, 2011 - Opening Night

Romanticism of Liszt, Brahms Captures Audience at Indian Hill Orchestra Opener

by McLaren Harris

"Auspicious" is a term probably overused to describe events such as Saturday night's (Oct. 22) season-opening concert by the Orchestra of Indian Hill. But auspicious it was. Artistic Director Bruce Hangen chose Romantic-era works by Liszt and Brahms to warm a mid-autumn evening for a capacity audience at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center. Two familiar works, Franz Liszt's symphonic poem, Les Préludes, and Johannes Brahms's beloved Symphony No. 1, framed the less familiar, less often-played A major Piano Concerto No. 2 of Liszt, with soloist Sergey Schepkin.

Which work brought the large audience to Littleton? The irresistible appeal of Brahms's First Symphony, still considered by many the finest of his four? The rhapsodic, by turns tender and fiery "Les Préludes," which puts the full resources of the orchestra on display? Or the reputation and memory of pianist Sergey Schepkin from his recital last season at Groton's Kalliroscope Gallery?

No matter; any one would do, and they all did. Perhaps most enlightening was the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2, revealed almost as the other side of the coin from the composer's First Concerto in E flat. Whereas the First Concerto, especially the outer movements, is bombastic and full of virtuosity with the piano pre-eminent nearly throughout, showing off Liszt's possibly unequaled keyboard skill, the Second Concerto is genuinely, intrinsically musical, with a well developed partnership between piano and orchestra.

The four sections of its single movement contain most of the basic elements of the sonata form, with plenty of opportunity for commanding, virtuosic bravado (Where would Liszt be without it?) as well as dynamically restrained lyrical passages and a more marked, march-like third section (thankfully not à l'hongroise). Schepkin's solo performance verged on the superlative; he has power, dexterity and smooth tenderness within his grasp and transitions flawlessly among them, shaping both delicate phrases and entire sections with knowing intent and direction. He and the orchestra, under Bruce Hangen's sensitive leadership, were excellently paired throughout, mutually supportive, seamlessly combining and exchanging roles.

What more can be written about the First Symphony of Brahms? Its performance gave full satisfaction to the audience, from the orchestra's fulsome low strings to the sonorous, hymn-like trombone choir in the finale, tonal beauty from the winds, and exquisite, finely focused high notes from new concertmaster Alice Hallstrom (former concertmaster Ala Jojatu has moved on to a permanent position with the Boston Symphony). As the symphony progressed, one could sense a building excitement within the orchestra and conductor Hangen, as if they were aware of the aural gem they were crafting. The following ovation was deserved.

The other, opening Liszt work, "Les Préludes," is well enough trod to be called an "old war horse," but it still has the power to stir and excite with its episodes of softness, suspense, raw power and heights of heroic feeling. It is an orchestral tour de force and was given its complete voice by the Indian Hill musicians undaunted by and unafraid of its challenges. As with the program's other works, there were many opportunities for individual recognition.

Finally, tips of the hat to Bruce Hangen for excellent preparation on an always-tight rehearsal schedule; timpanist Karl Seyferth for his consistently rock-solid timpani playing, always on point, as understated or as thunderous as required; and Scheffra Spirodopoulos, fourth horn, who filled out horn quartet passages in "Les Préludes" by bringing forth notes one never hears on recordings.

McLaren Harris is a former music and entertainment critic for the Boston Herald and a long-time writer in public relations and communications for high technology companies.

January 13, 2013 - Mistral

Mistral Brings the Warmth of Schubert, Beethoven to Indian Hill Chamber Series

by McLaren Harris
A welcome breeze of musical warmth, not the cold, wintry gales that sweep across southern France, filled Groton's Kalliroscope Gallery Sunday afternoon (January 13), as Mistral, a touring group of seven musicians from Andover Chamber Music, presented quintets by Beethoven and Schubert as part of Indian Hill Music's Chamber Series.

Finding more highly credentialed performers than these seven from Mistral (Julie Scolnik, flute; Sarita Kwok, violin; Wenting Kang and Wesley Collins, violas; Alexander Lecarme, cello; Donald Palma, double bass; and Max Levinson, piano) would be difficult indeed. Each is well schooled, well traveled and well seasoned in concert halls around the world, and the fruits of their training and experience are deliciously rewarding for the most discriminating musical palates.

The program included the not-so-familiar and the well-beloved: Beethoven's Quintet in C, Op. 29, and Schubert's A major Quintet, "The Trout." Perhaps this occasion may help pull Beethoven's Opus 29 from its relative obscurity, having been composed halfway between the composer's early and middle string quartets and largely hidden from audiences by them. Unfairly so; the C major Quintet is a gem of mature talent, expert construction, thematic beauty and fertile imagination, from the simple solo line punctuated by fortissimo chords to the captivating tremolos in the final Presto that gave the work its popular title, "The Storm."

Mistral gave Opus 29 a twist: Julie Scolnik, Andover Music's artistic director, arranged to substitute her flute for the first violin, in a burst of what she admitted as "repertoire envy." The combination worked especially well in the lyrical passages of the Adagio and elsewhere, and she matched the agile lines of the outer movements with equal quickness. If this work was unfamiliar to any of the performers, they did not show it; intonation and articulation were secure and the ensemble was pleasingly tight.

What remains to be said about Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, other than to marvel at its enduring beauty after nearly 200 years and that it was a product of a composer barely 22 years old? Its five movements are pure gold, an utterly felicitous succession of passages with nary a dull or lifeless moment, and the fourth movement's variations by now have become indelibly impressed on each listener's consciousness.

The musicians of Mistral treated the quintet as superbly as anyone ever has. Max Levinson's piano work was sparkling, always balanced within the ensemble, whether lending support or taking the lead; Alexander Lecarme's cello was both robust and lyrical; Sarita Kwok's violin and Wenting Kang's viola were sweet and full-toned to match each texture and pinpoint-accurate throughout; Donald Palma's double-bass provided a deep sonic perspective, just the kind of foundation and recognition, as he said, that Schubert gave to legions of double-bass players of his and later generations.

A superlative here would only be understatement. If you wish to find a better performance of the "Trout," better to give up; it won't happen. How fortuitous that these performances occurred during an unseasonably mild spell of January weather…or was it the other way around? One may never know.

April 28, 2012 - Ryu Goto, violin

Parker Quartet Makes a Triumphant Kalliroscope Debut

by McLaren Harris
The appearance by the Parker Quartet Saturday night (April 28) at Groton's Kalliroscope Gallery must be rated a true highlight of Indian Hill Music's chamber music series this season – or of any concert series and any season. This group of four young, locally trained string players make up an award-winning, well traveled and recorded ensemble that is undeniably in the major leagues of string quartets.

The four – Daniel Chong and Karen Kim, violins, Jessica Bodner, viola, and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello – came together during their undergraduate and graduate years at the New England Conservatory and quickly set out to conquer the worlds of performance and competition. Winning prizes in both Europe and the U.S., they are justifiably gaining renown for their expressiveness, power and discipline.

The program's three works by Mozart, Leoš Janáček and Robert Schumann called on those skills in no small measure. Mozart's final Quartet No. 23 in F, K. 590, was the third in an intended set of six dedicated to a cello-playing patron, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. In addition to its obligatorily prominent cello part (as well as a fine viola part – the king must have had a violist friend), the quartet is full of harmonic variety and rushing contrapuntal lines in the faster movements, whose complexity yet imparts a feeling of the compositional effortlessness of which perhaps only Mozart was capable.

Maybe the Parker players made it seem that way; Kee-Hyun Kim and Jessica Bodner gave an agile, well-toned account of Mozart's intents in the cello and viola lines while violinists Daniel Chong and Karen Kim provided plenty of energy and dynamic direction.

Janáček's String Quartet No. 2 has an intriguing and very telling subtitle: "Intimate Letters." Written in 1928, the last year of his life, its four movements tell of the composer's intense but vain love for a much younger (by 37 years), married woman with whom he exchanged more than 700 letters. The first is passionate, the second breathlessly insistent, the third tenderly evocative of her, and the fourth an almost palpable pleading for closeness (which never came, of course).

The Parker Quartet excelled in this atmosphere of strong, nearly savage emotion with biting tremolos, wispy and ethereal sul ponticello passages and lyrical, tonal richness. Content-wise, this work is a tour de force of expression, for which the musicians were fully equipped and ready, earning the audience's admiration.

It remained for Schumann's Quartet in A major, Op. 41, No. 3 to top the Janáček work for strength and virtuosic challenge, and the youthful, eminently capable members of the Parker Quartet carried it through triumphantly. Schumann composed this quartet in just a few days in 1842, his "chamber music year" – an amazing feat of compositional power, full-flowered romanticism and poetic feeling, from the gentle variations of the opening movement, the excitement of the second, the tonally lush third and the charging rhythms, unstoppable energy and joyful outpouring of the finale.

The Parker players fear nothing; they brought Schumann's jewel to a heroic conclusion with a magnified dynamic range from hushed lyricism to raw power rivaling larger ensembles, along with the precise responses, tonal security and balance of a top-ranked quartet. The final, full-voiced chords brought them a standing ovation, an occurrence uncommon in chamber venues but well deserved.

Now that the Parker Quartet has found its way "home" (it is currently in residence in St. Paul, Minnesota), there are fond hopes here of an early return.

October 15, 2011 - Ryu Goto, violin

Varied Styles, Technical Prowess Mark Violin-Piano Program at Kalliroscope

by McLaren Harris
Musical styles from Beethoven to Prokofiev and lots of virtuosic dash rewarded a capacity audience Saturday night (Oct. 15), as Ryu Goto, violin, and Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta, piano, opened Indian Hill Music's Kalliroscope Gallery chamber music series.

Ryu Goto, 23-year-old Japanese-American violinist and a recent Harvard graduate, already has an established musical career and a well deserved reputation for technical accomplishment. He handles traditional classical repertoire with ease and attacks the daunting demands of Paganini and his contemporaries without fear or hesitation. His body language while playing is telling and his interaction with audiences is appealing.

Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta was no less a master of style as his partner, matching his prowess with her own, her dynamic expression and keyboard dexterity giving their collaboration a true duet fullness.

One could look to works by Prokofiev and Ravel at both ends of the program as the most musically satisfying. The opening violin-piano Sonata No. 1 of Prokofiev, begun before but completed after his Sonata No. 2 during the 1940s, is dark and almost brutal in its seeming reflection of the horrors of World War II and the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin. Its performance is a challenge for the musicians and even for audiences unused to such stark expression, even from Prokofiev. The music switches from near-anger and despair to strands of hopeful tenderness across scenes of tragedy. The composer called the violin's feathery, rising and falling scales at the ends of the first and final movements a "wind passing through a graveyard." Well done, and well received.

At the other end was Maurice Ravel's Gypsy rhapsody, "Tzigane," a musical parody of the seductive reputation and personality of an acquaintance of Ravel. For all its apparent mocking and musical humor, "Tzigane" is no trifle. Besides its challenging and flashy fingerwork for both players, it has real and lasting musical value in its exploration of violin technique, its tonal variety from broodingly emotional to sul ponticello cackling, the almost orchestral quality of the piano role and the building of the frenetic climax. This was perhaps the most successful collaboration of the evening; Ryu Goto's energy, virtuosity and tone were striking in their intensity; Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta's pianism was brilliant with rushing glissandos and pinpoint keyboard accuracy.

Paganini's Variations on a Paisiello aria, "Nel cor piu non mi sento," for violin solo, followed the Prokofiev sonata. It is pure, technically ravishing Paganini, always threatening to destroy either the violin or the player, but again dispatched with bravado by Mr. Goto – proof of his formidable skill, even while causing a bit of sensory overload for the listener. Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata, Op. 24, brought some familiar and comforting Viennese classicism to the mixture and was well executed by Mr. Goto and Ms. Rodriguez-Peralta.

As the encore, Mr. Goto chose another solo, an adaptation by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, a Paganini contemporary, of a Schubert song, "Der Erlkönig," based on a Goethe poem about a father's vain attempt to save his son from deathly possession. The violinist kept up the mad chase with vigor to the end.

Finally, a bow to the instruments – Mr. Goto's 1722 Stradivarius and the Kalliroscope's Steinway grand – full-voiced and focused in all registers. What more could one wish?

McLaren Harris is a former music and entertainment critic for the Boston Herald and a long-time writer in public relations and communications for high technology companies.

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