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April 16, 2014

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.

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