CONDUCTOR AND PIANIST FAIL TO MAKE MUSIC COME ALIVE
AT PHILHARMONIC CONCERT


By Lawrence Budmen

Sometimes the musical performances heard at concerts sound as if they occurred in a time warp. This thought was brought to mind by the work of conductor Bruce Hangen at the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra's concert on January 5, 2003 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.

Three decades ago Hangen was a young ballet conductor. During the intervening years he has been music director of the Omaha Symphony and artistic director of the Portland (Maine) Opera Repertory Theater. Currently he is principal guest conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Yet he has not grown as an artist. His music making remains very much as it was in his ballet days - loud and unsubtle. While that kind of performance may work in a production of "Swan Lake" or "Giselle" (where the music supports an opulent stage spectacle and brilliant choreography), the more rarified atmosphere of the concert hall demands greater musical commitment and a sense of the heartbeats behind the notes - the composers' musical inspiration. 

Hangen led a capable performance of Franz Liszt's "Mazeppa" in the orchestral version by Liszt and Joachim Raff (a formidable composer of symphonies and tone poems in his own right). The brass section shone brilliantly in this orchestral showpiece. Most of the time the strings played in a precise manner. ( Founding concertmaster Bogdan Chruszcz played first chair). The performance lacked the sense of terror inherent in the music. The music needed greater abandon, momentum, and forward drive. Tchaikovsky's tone poem "Francesca da Rimini," Opus 32 is Russian romanticism in full flower. Based upon an episode in Dante's "Inferno" this music is filled with passion. Hangen's conducting was nondescript and devoid of intensity. There were intonation problems in the winds and strings (which sounded wiry). The orchestral ensemble playing lacked solidity. The overwhelming power of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece was not heard in this performance. 

The piano works of Liszt and Rachmaninoff require flawless technique, musical precision, and virtuoso panache. Pianist John Novacek brought a youthful presence and a flair for theatricality to his performances. Many in the audience were impressed with his stage demeanor and showbiz dramatics. His performances were lacking in the grand line of romantic pianism. Novacek's tone was small; too often the piano sound was monochromatic. Fortissimos were harsh sounding. Ferruccio Busoni's glittering 1894 orchestration of Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole" improves on an already great piece. Hangen and the orchestra gave a good delineation of the orchestral coloration that Busoni added to a piano showpiece. That orchestration presupposes a virtuoso account of the piano's role. Here Novacek's performance was sketchy at best. Octaves sounded muddy or were skipped altogether; extremes of volume made the performance more musically disorienting.

Rachmaninoff's 1934 masterpiece "Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini," Opus 43 is one of the last gasps of musical romanticism. The Florida Philharmonic's performance was replete with missed entrances. Hangen's conducting emphasized speed over tonal richness or emotional intensity. Novacek is really more of a pops than a classical pianist. One can easily imagine him giving fine performances of Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" or Miklos Rozsa's "Spellbound Concerto." In Rachmaninoff's rhapsodic panorama, his unrelenting harshness and lack of tonal coloration were unattractive. Too many notes and runs were missed. The entire performance needed less surface flash and more musical substance. 

No matter how great a musical score may be, it is the performing artists who make the music live. While the FPO's program of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky was highly attractive on paper, Hangen and Novacek failed to make the music come alive.


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