The title “Crescendo” would have been just as fitting for Friday night’s performance of “Verdi, Brahms, and Strauss” by the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) in Sanders Theatre. While the pieces played were all rife with dramatic crescendos, the show as a whole formed an overarching crescendo in both performance complexity and tone.
The concert marked the second performance of HRO’s 199th season and featured three powerful pieces, one of which included twin guest performers Emily and Julia Bruskin of the well-reputed Claremont Trio.
The night’s exciting undercurrent was palpable as the audience filed into the theater’s 1166 seats and cheered more boisterously than usual for the black-clad performers as they warmed up under the watchful statues of James Otis and Josiah Quincy.
The energy amplified when HRO president Chrix E. Finne ’07 bounded aboard the platform to introduce conductor Dr. James Yannatos, HRO’s buoyant music director since 1964.
The performance opened with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Overture to La Forza del Destino,” an opera that follows the story of two clandestine paramours. The overture foreshadows the impending tragedy with a dark, surging theme which was gradually accelerated by Yannatos’ conducting.
The string section showcased impressive prowess in swells and plucky staccatos. The dramatic finale, however, which was punctuated with brass and cymbal crashes, was slightly muddled. Still, the piece effectively conveyed the opera’s fateful tone and segued appropriately to increasingly dramatic performances.
The second piece was Johannes Brahms’ “Double Concerto in A minor,” a concerto for violin and cello soloists that is considered one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces. The twin guest performers took to the stage for this number. The Bruskins are slender brunettes distinguishable only by the size of their instruments, violin and cello respectively.
The three movements of the concerto, Allegro, Andante, and Vivace non Troppo, were played with great fluidity by the orchestra, providing a backdrop to showcase the soloists’ talents.
Allegro, the first movement of the concerto, featured an interplay between the violin and cello, forging a sort of graceful onstage sibling rivalry. Both sisters emoted powerfully, though Julia’s intonations were more expressive.
The Bruskins were highly polished and synchronized performers, whose excellence in playing together was made increasingly evident in the final climactic movement.
Their performance was very well-received, and a chuckle skittered through the crowd when Yannatos called the women back to the stage for one last bow, a twin in each arm and a beam on his face.
The final piece of the night was Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” or “A Heroic Life,” an exultant six-piece tone poem that depicts a hero’s journey. Though “Ein Heldenleben” has been criticized for its over-inflated and self-indulgent rhapsodic qualities, it was an apt and satisfying finale to the concert.
The first movement, “The Hero,” featured a soaring trumpet’s clarion call led brilliantly by the HRO trumpeters, among them president Finne.
The following movement, “The Hero’s Adversaries,” was a quieter and more capricious piece showcasing the woodwinds. “The Hero’s Companion,” the third portion, highlighted the extraordinary ability of co-concertmaster J. Y. “Ariel” Jeong ’07 in show-stealing solos on the violin.
Jeong’s perfect pitch was especially poignant as it persisted through “The
Hero’s Battlefield,” a percussion-heavy section that reintroduced the trumpets.
The trumpet work was especially adept at conveying the calamity of battle in a controlled manner. The last two movements, “The Hero’s Works of Peace” and “The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment,” brilliantly capped off the performance with soaring melodies concluding with a trumpet fanfare that resonated in intensity.
The performance as a whole was characterized by increasing passion and energy. The final fanfare was a graceful farewell to an intense performance, a fitting microcosm of the evening as a whole.