A ROUSING OPENER OF BRAHMS, BIRDS AND RAVEL

October 21, 2012

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.