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Aternus Furioso at Hotchkiss

On October 10th Hotchkiss School celebrated its tenth anniversary of free concerts at the Esther Eastman Music Center in Katherine M. Elfers Hall with the Aternus Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Larry Alan Smith. Aternus is the Latin name for the Aterno River in Italy’s Abruzzo Region of East-Central Italy. The large hall with wonderful acoustics was 90% filled.
The program began with the youngest son of J. S. Bach, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) with his Sinfonia in D major, Op. 18, No. 1. The energetic Allegro assai enjoyed such an emphatic conclusion that spontaneous applause broke out. The 28 musicians savored this unexpected outburst and proceeded to the slower Andante, and then the concluding Allegro assai that rang changes on the first movement—joyous baroque circularity attempting to move beyond baroque cliché.
Richard Wagner’s 1870 Siegfried Idyll followed. It was originally composed as an orchestral work for Wagner’s second wife. Actually, it was a Christmas morning birthday celebration with 70 musicians out on the mansion’s veranda. Cosima’s birthday was the 24th but she preferred to celebrate her birthday on Christmas. The piece was well-played, yet I judged it to be overly long, romantic in charming modality, and repetitive, but the well-wrought conclusion was more than satisfactory.
The American premiere of Aurora (2013) by conductor Larry Alan Smith concluded the program before intermission. The Aternus Chamber Orchestra specializes in 21st century music and so this was a fitting, enjoyable piece that chronicled a day from sunrise to next sunrise. The melody possessed dramatic drive in an accessible program transparent to all. There was dynamic drama with charm more palpable than in Wagner. This ten-minute piece was a delight. My elbow neighbor who often dismisses contemporary compositions as facile said she thoroughly enjoyed it, it being perhaps the first modern composition she genuinely liked. I agreed with her contentment, as did everyone else present.
Aurora furnished a modest crescendo to the astonishing climax that followed: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Violincello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56. Here Larry Alan Smith elected to conduct from the middle of the stage with the three featured instruments upfront, to his back: Leonid Sigal on violin, Eric Dahlin on cello, and Fabio Witkowski on piano. This being Beethoven, the music rose up to the level of astonishment. Simple melody was dramatically driven by complicated and virtuoso asides. One was never sure of the next turn but when that surprise turn arrived, it sounded perfectly appropriate and exciting. Red-headed Cathryn Gaylord on principal bassoon quickly ducked behind stage to change her reed before her shining moment. Witkowski was steady at piano. Sigal on violin broke a string and furiously sawed onward. Dahlin was remarkably, memorably outstanding on cello. An anniversary had been celebrated in high style.