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Hotchkiss Orchestral Debut

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 24th, 2019

Conductor Fabio Witkowski and pianist Leonel Morales

This past Saturday night at the Hotchkiss School in Katherine M. Elfers Hall Fabio Witkowski conducted the first performance of the newly formed Hotchkiss Orchestra. The two-part program opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, op. 21 (1800). Beethoven’s first symphony followed in the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart.

For the first movement Beethoven wrote about ten sketches. The opening movement immediately calls attention to itself with dramatic dissonance, yet it is the pleasing harmonies of the symphony that made it popular then and now. Beethoven follows Mozart but tweaks him into almost unrecognizable shape. The orchestra played with remarkable unity and energy with Fabio being fabulous in coaxing the appropriate dynamics from students.

The third movement Menuetto, which resembles a scherzo (joke), offers the most excitement in its fast and brash pace. The strings and horns were tight here while the winds and drums made it fly. While one could not really dance to it, this movement entered the delightful ethereal world of abstract dance (as sometimes happens in Bach).

The second part of the program featured Cuban-born pianist Leonel Morales (based in Spain since 1991), who performed Frédéric Chopin’s 1830 Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, op. 11. Morales played fluently from memory, striking keys with sublime clarity. This was Chopin’s second piano concerto, sometimes called his “Farewell” concerto because immediately after it was performed, he departed from Poland at the age of nineteen, never to return. Although there was only one short review of his Warsaw performance, the audience of about 700 accorded it an enthusiastic welcome, as did the virtually full audience at Elfers Hall. Devoting himself to exquisite piano miniatures, Chopin never wrote another piano concerto.

The opening polonaise of the orchestra was performed with intense energy and I was impressed by the vitality of the strings (who were predominantly current students at the school). Morales on piano responded with a sparkling éclat. The second movement conjured the dreamy Romanticism of John Field’s piano concertos and nocturnes, while the third movement where the piano was so prominent with sensitive mood, evoking a personal Romantic sensibility to either Tytus or Konstancja, about to become a memory.

The finale (written later) with its lively Polish folk dance in double-time and swooping piano arpeggios offered a vibrant contrast to the structure of the Beethoven symphony. Chopin appears to declare that the elaborate “public,” “architectural,” and “urban” structure of Beethoven’s monumental work is now something of the past, that what is now needed is a more profound and intimate exploration of the personal artistic voice, that the Romantic Revolution affirms a deeper exploration of what was later to be called “unconscious” moods and “vibrations” of life’s experiences. Morales highlighted this subtle contrast with the more extroverted orchestra with an aura of accomplished sprezzatura.

The personal dance of the artist, free from the need of elite patronage, upwelling from the rural folk and landscape was to be the authentic voice of reform, not the court, religious, and military structures that failed the common folk with their deranged politics and blessed massacres. Morales bowed to the audience with that humble gesture of both artist and man of the people in him.

There’s a vital new orchestra with a marvelous conductor waving his baton in the neighborhood and they are not even charging admission. Program notes were quite sophisticated. The Hotchkiss Orchestra’s next appearance will be on May 4, 7 pm.