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January 26, 2014

By McLaren Harris

Most orchestra concert programs are anchored by one or two major symphonic works, so when one saw that the Sunday (January 26) program by the Orchestra of Indian Hill at the Littleton Performing Arts Center contained four works by Rossini, Schubert, Emmanuel Séjourné and Dvorak, one might have been tempted to ask, "Where is the center of gravity?"


It is true, although the Rossiini overture, a symphony by the 19-year-old Franz Schubert, Séjourné's two-movement Concerto for Marimba and Strings and a suite based on Czech folk dances by Dvorak are all finely composed and highly entertaining, that there is no "Mighty Fifth" among them.


So where was the gravity?  It was, undeniably, where it belonged: in the performances by the musicians of the Orchestra of Indian Hill, marimba soloist Brandon Ilaw, and conductor Bruce Hangen.  On Sunday, they could have sat (and stood) as equals of almost any of the world's major orchestras.  Yes, they were that good.


One could think of Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville" as a relative trifle, but it is nonetheless demanding instrumentally and highly transparent.   On Sunday, it glistened like fine crystal as the violins almost literally leapt on every entrance and every note and the lower strings bit into responding passages with confidence and vigor.  One watched as the wind players sculpted lines with their body language as well as resonant phrasing.  If Rossini enjoyed such light-hearted and energetic playing for his many operas, it's no wonder he was able to retire rich at age 37.


Schubert's C minor Symphony No. 4, the "Tragic," has not the maturity of the later "Great" C major, but it is no trifle, either.  It is said that Brahms weaved together the sections of his movements while Schubert sewed his, but the irrepressible dynamism and the melodic and harmonic beauty of the 4th win over all objections.  Under Bruce Hangen's direction, the orchestra's strings and woodwinds built a romantic dream in the second movement, danced through the scherzo (labeled "minuet") and dashed through the finale with verve and no loss of control.


Emmanuel Séjourné is not as well known as he might or should be, with a large repertoire of solo, chamber, orchestral and choral music, much of it written with both classical and jazz elements for theatrical and film productions.  Lyrical passages in the first movement of his Concerto for Marimba and Strings do have a film-score feeling, while the Spanish dance-like rhythms of the second provide a pleasing contrast.  It unites marimba and strings in one accessible and pleasing language.

Percussionist Brandon Ilaw's performance was by turns sensitive, brash and brilliant.  His four-mallet technique, pioneered decades ago by Gary Burton at the Berklee School (now Berklee College) of Music, was a thing of wonder, flashing over and striking the wooden bars with seemingly unerring accuracy, even as he stretched his arms to reach the extremes of register.  His blazing virtuosity in the second movement was quite extraordinary, especially in the realms of traditional classicism, and the standing ovation he received was well merited.


Dvorak's Czech Suite is a fine example of the nationalist movement in music of Europe in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, as composers drew on the rich folk dance and song traditions of their homelands.  The orchestra took well to each movement's mood -- tranquil, bucolic, spirited, moving, energetically Slavonic.

Besides Hangen's leadership (he knows how to rehearse), accolades are due to many -- oboist Jennifer Slowik, flutist Jessica Lizak, clarinetist Steven Jackson, bassoonist Sebastian Chavez, hornist Clark Matthews and too many more to list.  They and the rest of the orchestra provided all the gravity needed.  They were that good.

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