Review: Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ invokes dreams and fantasies

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

With “Hadestown” in The Bushnell’s Mortensen Hall and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” in its Belding Theater the same weekend, there’s enough supernatural power emanating from the venue to light the nearby Capitol dome.

Just as “Hadestown” veers from blues jump jazz to chamber pop, the symphony’s program for its fifth Masterworks concert of the season finds Berlioz’s hallucinatory dreamwork sharing the bill with two Scott Joplin rags and a cello concerto composed by Anna Clyne in 2019.

Do they mesh or is it a mess? It’s certainly one of the more curious pairings that the symphony has tried recently.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has played “Symphonie Fantastique” before, most recently in 2013. The Joplin and Clyne pieces are having their Hartford Symphony Orchestra debuts.

What unites the works turns out to be dreams and fantasies. The Berlioz is obvious: The composer said he was trying to depict a young artist on a drug trip and was probably on opium himself when he composed it. The Joplin is more of a cartoonish, exaggerated reality sort of dream. Then there’s Anna Clyne’s astounding “Dance” Concerto for Cello, which is the gem of the evening despite Berlioz’s work hogging the program’s whole title.

The problem with dreams is that they’re ephemeral and tenuous and can veer off wildly. As a programming strategy, it can be unfettered.

Regarding the specific works, there’s another issue here: Whether or not you like to hear Scott Joplin’s endearing piano rags puffed up with orchestral pomp. Joplin’s original works are the stuff of gin joints, parlor pianos and dance bands. The 1973 movie “The Sting” used “The Entertainer” and other Joplin rags for its soundtrack, popularizing orchestral versions of the tunes. They can have such a different feel in a symphony hall. While “Ragtime Dance” is given the jaunty, early 20th-century feel of a band playing an ice cream social in a village park (the orchestra members even stomp their feet while playing), “The Entertainer” is oversweetened, overstuffed and not really ragtimey at all.

Kuan yielded the baton for “The Entertainer” to a young conductor-in-training from the mentoring program of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. The fellowship, which addresses gender inequity in the classical music field by promoting, mentoring and celebrating the work of female conductors, is in the midst of its 20th-anniversary global concert series. The series began in Spain in September, has had concerts in Canada, Austria and the UK, and will be collaborating with U.S. orchestras through May. The Hartford visit was special because Hartford Symphony Orchestra music director Carolyn Kuan was the very first Taki Alsop fellow two decades ago.

“Symphonie Fantastique” takes up the post-intermission of this night of odd visions. It is hard at first to discern where Kuan is going, conductor-wise, with this multi-layered dreamscape. There’s no slow build, more of a bumpy ride, through the first “Reveries, Passions,” movement. The third movement, “Scene in the Country” has a firmer feel here: quivering, trembling, bucolic yet eerie. It’s easy to bliss out during this purposefully trippy symphony, and the concluding “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” section may cleverly lull you into fitful semi-slumber before it shatters that state of mind with its wake-up finale, which the Hartford Symphony Orchestra plays as sharply as if they were poking you with sticks.

The center of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s 90-minute (plus 20-minute intermission) swirl of dream images is Anna Clyne’s mesmerizing 2019 “Dance” Concerto for Cello. It is perfectly placed, building on the arch rhythms of the ragtime that preceded and providing an uncluttered bridge to the grandiose “Symphonie Fantastique.”

It has none of the lushness of either Joplin or Berlioz. “Dance” can be stark and measured. Its power comes from reverberation, not volume. Clyne writes orchestral works that ask musicians to echo, with living, breathing human warmth, what electronic and synthesized instruments can do in modern recordings. The cello is the superstar of “Dance,” but there are extraordinary bumps and clicks and theremin-like squeaks added by the vibraphonist and a crucial core hum emanating from the violins. Over this bedrock of strangely soothing vibrations is a tour-de-force cello solo that changes its character completely for each movement.

Unlike Joplin’s rags, “Dance” is not meant to be danced to. It’s inspired by five lines of poetry by the 13th-century mystic Rumi, all of which begin with the word “dance” but then conjure images of conflict, suffering and freedom. Like “Symphonie Fantastique,” “Dance” has five distinct and differently styled movements. Unlike Berlioz’s symphony, “Dance” does not get strident or overbearing. It’s fragile and thoughtful. It’s a contemplative dream, not a creepy one.

The cello soloist for “Dance” is Inbal Segev, the foremost interpreter of this challenging and mind-opening work, which has quickly become one of the premiere compositions written for cello in recent years. Segev was the artist who commissioned Clyne to write “Dance” and who made the first recording of it in 2020. On the album, which topped the Amazon Classical Concertos chart and has had extraordinary popularity on streaming music services, “Dance” is paired with an Edward Elgar cello concerto. The Hartford Symphony context, sandwiching Clyne between formalized jazz and symphonic fantasy, is much more liberating. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just repeat “Dance” several times in a single evening. There’s so much going on in it, you want to hear it again as soon as it’s over.

It may be hard to mentally maneuver this sometimes jarring, sometimes somnolent stream of dream imagery, especially while awake in a concert hall on a rainy night. You have to trust the orchestra when it makes some pushy decisions. It’s the quiet parts and the thrilling understated strings that can be most moving. Settle back, let down your guard and let the dream appear.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s “Symphonie Fantastique” Masterworks concert has its final performance Sunday at 3 p.m. $38-$73.