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H-RO: Comedy (Ford) to Tears (Vibrant Tosca)


Last night’s concert with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra began with comedy: five mustachioed members (Fran Lee ‘15, Matthew Shuham ‘15, Matthew Watson ‘15, Yaniv Yacoby ‘15, and yes, even Elizabeth Bloom ‘12) of the percussion section mutely sauntered onto the stage of Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre only to discover a  menagerie of drum heads. What followed was a performance of Mark Ford’s 1995 composition, Head Talk, rife with a delightful sense of improvisation and comedy. Clearly a work of its time, the eight-minute piece emulates other percussion works of the mid-nineties (think STOMP, only with five percussionists). The work highlights what is best about the percussion section — the ability to extract sound out of virtually any object, the necessity for every individual to be well versed in all the mediums on the stage, and perhaps most obviously (but importantly) the ability of any percussionist to have an unflagging sense of rhythm. An entertaining, yet technically challenging, composition, Ford’s piece highlighted the considerable talents of the percussionists both in their medium and in their ability to entertain.

Yet what begins with comedy must almost certainly end in tears: theatricality seemed high on the mind, as H-RO, under the leadership of Frederico Cortese, continued in a darker vein, performing the final two acts of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. The programming was unusual for a college orchestra; Puccini’s original orchestration called for a small pit band (seven string players, a small brass and winds section and percussion) but H-RO more than tripled these numbers. And certainly, by virtue of being an orchestra concert, the emphasis is perhaps not primarily on the bold bel canto soloists of the opera, but perhaps the orchestra itself. So ultimately: how to perform an opera that places orchestra and soloist on equal footing?

HRO’s approach ultimately proved successful, although it should be noted that the production is certainly no small feat. One can imagine that a concert consisting of nearly two hours of music is difficult to rehearse, but, given the absence of soloists and chorus during the majority of rehearsals for a work so heavily dependent on the voice, it is easy to imagine such a task confusing and at times grueling. Credit where credit is due, of course — Cortese’s guidance of the HRO resulted in a remarkably vibrant read, faithfully negotiating the significant drama of Puccini’s score. Members of HRO’s orchestra showed equal ability in both the delicate intimate moments of the work (the conclusion of Act II, for example, was nothing short of sublime) as well as the glorious bombast that Puccini’s score demands.

But certainly, the challenge presented for Saturday’s concert was even greater: simply playing the work, as most college orchestra performances require, is not enough. HRO’s performance also required sensitivity to the voices that advance the drama on stage. Joining the orchestra was a cast consisting of both professional and student soloists. Both Stewart Kramer ‘12 (singing both Sciaronne and a jailor and doubling as stage director) and Ian Clark ‘12 (Spoletta), gave impressive performances and certainly show considerable talent for singers of their age. It was disappointing that both were frequently overpowered by the combined forces of the H-RO. Jake Gardner presented a commanding Scarpia; his baritone provided a substantial palette of emotions that did not shy away from the pyrotechnics that Puccini demands.This played well with professional soprano Kate Mangiameli in the title role, who, although not as strong in her lower range, presented a rich, easy middle range that blossomed into a crystalline dramatic upper range. Mangiameli’s collaboration with the H-RO in the crown jewel of Act II, “Vissi d’arte,” was particularly effective, and the ensemble played well off her internal reverie. None of this, of course, is to ignore the other professional singer, lirico-spinto tenor Brian Landry, the Cavaradossi, who graced the stage with a heroic tenor that thrives in the rich sound world of bel canto opera. As confident in the bombast of “Vittoria! Vittoria!” as in the more sentimental arias of the third act, Landry proved a force to be reckoned with — hopefully to grace Boston stages frequently.

In his introduction, H-RO president Gabriel Walker, ‘13, stated that this performance was the first major collaboration with soloists in the presentation of an opera in the roughly 200 years of the ensemble. Certainly, from a purely didactic perspective, it provides a unique avenue for students to understand the orchestral backdrop of opera and to perform an orchestral work with a different tack than with the more traditional symphony, or even concerto and oratorio. That it also provides a unique entree for an audience to engage with opera is a happy byproduct of the orchestra’s daring new venture. H-RO concludes its 204th season with a performance of Brahms, Debussy and Ravel on April 28, featuring the Harvard Holden Choirs and the winner of the James Yannatos Concerto Competition.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various singing groups in Boston and Cambridge.

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  1. Lovely review; makes me wish I was there.  I have one semantic bone to pick on this review; Tosca isn’t a bel canto opera, strictly speaking.  Bel canto as I understand it refers to an earlier style of singing and opera composition; Rossini, Donizetti, and Meyerbeer are more typical examples of bel canto.  Verismo is the late 19th century style associated with Leoncavallo and Puccini, among others, and while there were many fine bel canto singers who also sang Puccini divinely, the style of Tosca owes as much to Wagner as it does to Rossini.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm

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