Guest Conductor Pulls Right Strings for HSO

02.17.08
Anne-Marie McDermott
Hartford Courant

To the extent that an orchestra is like a complex machine, a guest conductor can create a sound very different from the one we have grown accustomed to by adjusting the dials. Canadian conductor Tania Miller, who hails from the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, where she has been music director for five years, took the controls Friday as guest conductor of the Hartford Symphony in a program with music inspired, in whole or part, by a time period earlier than when they were written.

The evening opened with "Le Tombeau de Couperin" by Ravel. Miller said that Ravel was seeking connection with the "elegance of Couperin" in the midst of World War I, and left us with a suite that reflects "the dance music of the past in the orchestral color of Ravel."

Miller had an extraordinary feel for this music and was able to communicate clearly with the orchestra, using quick motions with sharp edges that produced an articulate, clean sound. She used many "stopped beats" in her conducting patterns, which drew the orchestra's attention.

An attractive and gentle dancing energy was maintained throughout the meandering sections of this suite. Heather Taylor created an effective oboe presence throughout the work, and in particular in the tricky passages of the opening.

Sergi Rachmaninoff was inspired by the surreal legacy of the infamous violinist Niccolò Paganini in his "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Rumors circulated within Paganini's lifetime that he had made a pact with the devil to acquire his virtuosity. Rachmaninoff mixed the theme from the last of Paganini's "24 Caprices" for solo violin with the "Dies Irae" from the Catholic Requiem Mass to paint this supernatural side of the famous violinist, and he turned the "Caprice" theme upside down to build love music from Paganini's conflicted musical personality.

Piano soloist Anne-Marie McDermott shaped an individual approach for this frequently heard work. She avoided the mistake of overplaying it, and instead listened deeply into the orchestra in the spirit of collaboration. She often highlighted quiet, jazzy elements in the score. The infamous 18th variation, known to many from the movie "Somewhere in Time," starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was played beautifully by orchestra and soloist, but there were many other lovely places also, including a chic-sounding minuet in D minor, and the fiery close of the work. McDermott received a well-deserved standing ovation that lasted much longer than typical for a Hartford audience.

After intermission, the orchestra played Brahms' 4th Symphony. This work fit the scheme in that the finale was inspired by compositional techniques borrowed from a cantata believed at the time to have been written by Bach.

There were compelling moments in this performance - the strength of the development in the first movement, the horn sound at the opening of the second movement, and the strong sonic foundation that was created, and then expanded upon, at the opening of the fourth movement.

But there were also critical places where things went awry - entrances were not together at the opening of the recapitulation in the first movement, and the sound was too loud at a place marked to be played quieter than almost anywhere in the Brahms literature. The gorgeous flute solo in the fourth movement was almost completely covered by the horns in accompaniment. For this symphony, one might have preferred the "dials" in their "Edward Cumming" settings.

Nonetheless, Miller is a conductor on the rise. She has a large gestural vocabulary coupled with strong and efficient conducting patterns that were helpful to the orchestra. It was fascinating to hear how different a familiar orchestra can sound with someone else at the controls.