HSO Masterworks #2

It was a very good weekend for the Harrisburg Symphony.

I came into the weekend with some nervousness. Nielsen's 4th Symphony - "Inextinguishable" - is a very difficult piece, to play and to conduct. It was my first go at it, and I knew that the same would be true for most of the orchestra. Add to that that the piece is a challenging one to listen to, not because it is not a great work (it is undeniably), but because long sections of it are dark and intentionally unpleasant. Of course, the work is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit over the greatest adversity, so it ends in unbelievably majestic fashion, but the journey is often rough. Furthermore, it takes an excellent performance to get the piece across. How would the orchestra play, and how would our audience respond? And how would I do? (Yes, even conductors face self-doubt at times...)

Well, I will leave assessment of my own performance to others, but I can with all honesty say that the orchestra played gloriously. The rehearsals were especially hard work. The first run-through of the symphony on Thursday was a mess, and even Friday night we were all still at sixes and sevens with one another. But Saturday morning suddenly things began to click, and by Saturday night, the orchestra seemed to really get the piece. And this orchestra played (as they always do) with total commitment and passion. The piece flew by for me, which is usually a good sign. And the audience response was very strong and sustained (although I know that the length of the ovation was perpetrated by less than everyone present). Today's (Sunday's) performance was at least as good, and I feel probably even better than the night before.

I knew the first half of the program would be a big hit. Poulenc's "Suite française" opened, with its quirky yet tender neo-Renaissance flavors. The winds and brass were wonderful both in individual playing and in ensemble. And "The Four Seasons" is money in the bank as far as audience reaction, even with a mediocre performance, and Odin Rathnam and the strings gave a beautiful reading. The Harrisburg audience loves Odin, and the response to the Vivaldi was deservedly thunderous.

The success of the Nielsen, I believe, speaks to the universality of his theme and also the similarity of the world we live in to the world he lived in. Like Nielsen in 1914, we are in a very volatile world capable of great violence and inhumanity. Indeed, there is a constant specter of the possibility of the world annihilating itself. The inextinguishable human spirit is a very powerful image in times like these.

In the end, though, it is the brilliance of the work itself that carried the day. I have truly enjoyed getting to know this work in my studies of it. I'm very glad to have it in my repertoire, and I'm honored to have been able to conduct it.

Especially with an extraordinary group of musicians like the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

On a side note, we had a group from the Harrisburg Young Professionals at the concert today. I had a chance to socialize with some of them after the concert. I was pleased at their reaction to the program - again, overwhelmingly positive. So much energy is devoted in the professional orchestra world to attracting younger audiences. My interaction with the members of HYP only reaffirmed what I have always believed. The way to build the audience of the future for orchestral music is to get young people in to the performance hall once and give them something to be excited about. And what could be more exciting than beautiful, stirring and thought-provoking music performed passionately. These are intelligent, sophisticated people, some of whom have simply not come to orchestral concerts before. I grant you that some will not like it. But many undoubtedly will, and they will return. And some of those might just get hooked.

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