Review: Hangen delivers learning adventure of ‘faux cultures’

Review by Anthony Bannon

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Guest conductor Bruce Hangen leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra during their performance last Thursday in the Amphitheater.

“How could anyone not like this?” exclaimed the lady as the satisfied Amphitheater audience whooped and stomped after the climax. Maestro Bruce Hangen went round calling out and shaking the hand of most everyone in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening, which did not turn out as cold as many overdressed fans thought.

Hangen has enjoyed appointments in almost every city within shouting distance — Pittsburgh and Cleveland among them — and now he is a candidate here, one of eight seeking appointment as music director. He is an educator, currently director of the orchestra and conducting program at the estimable Boston Conservatory of Music, and he has studied popular tastes as principal pops conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra. A graduate of Eastman School of Music, he held shuttle positions as an assistant conductor with the Buffalo and Syracuse symphony orchestras and on faculty in Rochester at Eastman School at the same time back in 1972-73.

He looks like he is having fun, leaning into his rhythms, standing motionless sometimes to let a good sound just happen, and, of course, finding good buttons to push with his audience. The button Thursday was the closer piece, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” Op. 34, a 15-minute house-afire that gives multiple solo and section sunshine opportunities. Pick your favorite. And the audience did.

It may not have been rocket science excellence, but like the lady said, it took off.

A week and a half ago, he conducted the CSO in a work by Maurice Ravel — always good for a unique take — and his selection back then was “Mother Goose” suite, pure program music. Hangen also conducted the living legend David Amram’s work for solo sax, and the never-fail Symphony No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven. He loves to play changes in tempo and and shifts in texture. He plays against expectations.

This time, it was a sampling of the potpourri Felix Mendelssohn composed over the years in response to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is an occasion for delight when finding sound familiar from other contexts, as in “Mother Goose” — only this time it was sprightly fairies, wind in the trees and a whining donkey from that magical summer night.

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Concertmaster Brian Reagin plays with the CSO during Thursday’s performance.

It all made the sneezing heroics from the back row seem to fit right in.

New work is another Hangen consistency, and he picks to win. He selected the rage in concert music right now, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon. Her work is all over the place. Her “blue cathedral,” which the CSO played, has enjoyed more than 400 performances around the country since it was first produced in 2000. Her “Percussion Concerto” was performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at SUNY Buffalo State just last April and its maestro, JoAnn Falletta, has recorded it for Angel Records.

Hangen took to the microphone to introduce the celebrated composer’s 8-minute-long composition — a tribute to her younger brother, who died of cancer at 35 years old. Blue is her late brother Andrew’s middle name. She makes plain in published text the program of her music; through an association of a high range of percussion strategies, it suggests the heavens and, in particular, a cathedral of passage between one plane and another.

Higdon symbolizes her own presence in the flute — her instrument — and her brother within the sound of the clarinet — his instrument. They call out to one another through the body of the work as the orchestra provides a rite of passage, as it were, built with somber chords from the cello and bass, and thereafter across the orchestra.

To an audience unfamiliar with music shared outside of melody, a storyline of eulogy should be a comfort, though one that withholds the pleasure of joining the artist in the creation — of coming to a work innocently. “blue cathedral” and its delicacy of tone and color likely will lead the listener to notions of the spirit and of yearning and grief — though it will be personally discovered and shaded through the meditation of the individual.

The work also holds anger, as the motif used in the call between flute and clarinet is made more resolute in the tenor of the horns. And then it passes, returning to the delicacy of lightly handled high percussion. Hangen held the orchestra silent at the last, his arms dramatically outstretched for pregnant seconds, sounds dissolving, before dropping his arms finally for appreciation.

Hangen navigated the orchestra across a variety of styles. It is an experiential learning adventure across faux cultures: from Russian exuberance interpreting a Spanish sensibility to a young German playing precociously with Shakespeare and also to a grieving artist speculating about heavenly realms This same cross-current facility appears in the works themselves, as the conductor asks an old friend, Roger Kaza, CSO principal horn, to risk the range of his difficult instrument.

Sometimes called the French horn, the instrument is the brunt of student jokes about its demanding nature. The 20th-century British composer Gordon Jacob through his career held fast to melody during the time of atonality, and he retained a populist following from the concert hall and to the silver screen. Wherever his work appeared, its skill in rendering whole the pleasure of its parts held the moment.

His “Concerto for Horn and Orchestra” from 1951 is an elegant example, and Hangen led the CSO to embrace a very well-managed horn in its midst. This is its charm, and Kaza’s, with all the modesty that befits a seamless exposition. Kaza’s horn, like the lion with the lamb, snuggled in with the violins and made a lullaby and later turned tough when called upon for quick fingered declarations of bravura styling.

The piece begins and ends with nimble showmanship, but settles into just lovely serenity, ending the first movement in a high register that finds a soul mate in Higdon’s cathedral and also introduces an exquisite adagio, the substance of the second movement. Kaza might offer his work as the antidote for the abuse his horn takes. The Chautauqua audience took due note.

But “The Wedding March”?

Hangen started the orchestra up and turned for an instant as if to conduct the audience. With a smile on his face and perhaps a wink — with red breast handkerchief against summer white coat — we could have been carried into a different season.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of The Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State, where he also serves as a research professor. Previously, he was an arts writer for The Buffalo News and longtime director of George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.