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January 28, 2013

By McLaren Harris

The legacies of prior centuries provided the substance of Sunday’s (January 27) concert by the Orchestra of Indian Hill at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center.  Artistic director Bruce Hangen chose two works from the heart of Viennese Classicism, Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto and the towering “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41 in C, and two 20th-century works by Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten that owe their musical and poetic inspiration to earlier times.

Not only the music was inspiring; the afternoon’s two soloists, Eric Ruske, French horn, and Rockland Osgood, tenor, demonstrated prodigious talents individually and together, collaborating to give flight to Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.  The Serenade sets four poems from the 17th to the 19th centuries telling of approaching night and eternal rest, a Ben Jonson hymn to the goddess Diana, and the centerpiece, an anonymous, gripping 15th-century Dirge foretelling what awaits the deceased.  The poems are framed by a prologue and an epilogue for horn alone, played as a natural instrument without valves.

The Serenade is eminently suited to the clear-toned lyric tenor of Rockland Osgood, with finely honed phrasing and secure intonation throughout, in the rollicking Hymn to Diana as well as the purely elegant Nocturne to words by Tennyson.  His sliding manner of linking verses in the Dirge was highly if softly dramatic.

Eric Ruske’s horn-playing was an excellent counterpoint to the vocal and string lines – the fanfares and echoes in the Nocturne, the eerie, sustained high-register notes in the Dirge (How does he do that?), the galloping flourishes of the Diana hymn were all admirably done.  Add to those the awakening call of the Prologue for the natural horn, with its ringing hunting-horn tone and slightly off-pitch partials, echoed off-stage in the Epilogue’s farewell.  The orchestra’s strings sculpted each phrase, built each climax and approached each hushed conclusion with attentive care.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E flat, No. 4 in order of publication but not necessarily of composition, has been well known and loved since its first performance by his friend Joseph Leutgeb, who was apparently expert at executing diatonic phrases with a natural horn and hand-muting (i.e., no valves).  Eric Ruske’s instrument has no such limitations, and neither does his talent.  He and the orchestra created a bright and cheerful partnership, answering and complementing each other with crisply articulated entrances and responses.  Ruske’s accurate negotiation of Mozart’s more acrobatic lines and rapidly changing registers was remarkable especially for those with experience with the French horn, and his sustaining and linking of phrases in the Andante were, let us say, breath-taking.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Strings also has its ties to the 18th-century, specifically the Baroque manner of Vivaldi, especially in its three-movement, fast-slow-fast structure and overall organization.  Its harmonic language, however, is pure Stravinsky, with its characteristic dissonance and predilection for altered tonalities.  It is possibly more fun for composers and players than for listeners, who may wait for delayed, sometimes inadequate resolution.  The orchestra gave the outer movements sufficient dash, especially the buzzing Rondo, while the accompanying lines of the intervening Arioso didn’t seem quite to match the lyric melodies.  Of course, that was the point – wasn’t it?

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony put the orchestra and Bruce Hangen in the spotlight with their chance for glory and, judging by the audience reception, glory there was.  The “Jupiter” is in many ways a crowning achievement of the Classical era – thematic beauty, supremely executed counterpoint, riveting dynamic changes, fulfilling climaxes.  Every concert-goer knows it by heart, yet each listener gives it full attention, awaiting each note, phrase, fugal entrance and section with an anticipation of discovery.  The orchestra seemed to sense this and delivered in every aspect – rhythmic clarity, linear tenderness, full and controlled dynamics, and the finale’s multi-themed, contrapuntal complexity that resolves into joyous conclusion.  It was the orchestra’s moment, and it was well done.

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