However you might describe him, Hartford Symphony Orchestra conductor Edward Cumming has become iconic in Hartford. After nine seasons, he is leaving his post as HSO music director, conducting his farewell concert on Saturday.
Cumming is known for his spontaneous, engaging style of presentation, counter to the icy formality that is often unfairly associated with classical music.
In September 2007, he was conducting Beethoven's first symphony at St. Joseph College in West Hartford. After the third movement, Cumming was poised to begin the fourth. Then he put his hands down, turned around to the audience and said, "He called that a minuet. Can you believe it!" With a quick rotation, he was back in position, and the fourth movement began, lightning-quick.
Cumming is a great student and interpreter of Beethoven. But it is not only the humorous and charismatic side of this great composer that Cumming can bring forth. Among his most memorable events was a May 2009 performance, in collaboration with the Hartford Chorale and Concora, of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
Cumming described the work as a "sacred symphony" and presided over a performance that was both inspired and detailed. "I told the chorus after that performance," said Cumming, "Now I can die a happy man, having done the Missa Solemnis at least once."
The performance of Mahler's ninth in October 2009, the Rachmaninoff Vespers in 2008 and the Ives third symphony in 2007 showcased the HSO as an orchestra with the potential to have national influence.
Cumming accepted the job after the HSO had auditioned 12 candidates over two years. He began working in Hartford during the summer of 2002 and officially began his tenure at the opening of the 2002-2003 season. Almost immediately, he set the place on its ear.
"I'll never forget my very first season," said Cumming over lunch. "I did a program that included Stephen Montague's new piano concerto."
Cumming described the tension, concern and palpable fear he felt from the Hartford audience as Louise Bessette sat down at the piano and put on black leather gloves. Was it a concerto for a gladiator?
"Ohhh, nooo," said Cumming, imitating the reaction of the audience. "What have we gotten ourselves into...all this craziness." But the audience loved it.
"Within a week or two, nobody remembered any of the other music on the program," said Cumming, "and there were people stopping the HSO executive director at the time, Charlie Owens, in his elevator three weeks later saying, 'I am still so taken by this concerto. ... It was so amazing!'"
"I'll never forget the first rehearsal of that piano concerto," said Cumming. "The orchestra just hated it, and understand- ably so. Stephen was asking for horrific sounds. But they were shocked when the audience responded so favorably to it."
"When you hear this music live," said Cumming, "it is really something to behold. Steven has a sense of drama." Montague was born in America and studied at both Florida State and Ohio State universities before moving to Europe. He has lived in London since 1974.
For his final HSO performance Saturday in Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell, Cumming returns to his adventurous side. He will lead a rarely played work by Hector Berlioz and will return to the music of Stephen Montague, with hundreds of singers on stage.
"The idea of doing the final concert with the chorus appeals to me," said Cumming, "because everything that I've done with the Hartford Chorale and Concora has been a great experience. It has been very satisfying to work with them."
The performance will center on the Te Deum by Berlioz, which is seldom heard live in concert. The Latin text of the Te Deum is all about celebration and praise. The music was originally written for two choruses, but Berlioz later added a chorus of children. It is scored for a colorful orchestra featuring quadruple woodwinds, four trumpets, six trombones and tuba, and the organ has a significant role.
"It is a remarkable work," said Cumming. "The sound of the organ in Mortensen Hall comes from the middle of the space, so anyone sitting in the orchestra section will hear it left and right. It makes it hard to conduct because the sound actually comes from behind me."
Pausing to think about the grand impression that this piece will make, Cumming cut to essentials: "It is about the organ, the orchestra and the chorus."
In returning to the music of Montague, Cumming will conduct the U.S. premiere of his "Requiem - The Trumpets Sounded Calling Them to the Other Side." It is a work that commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.
Augmenting the traditional Latin Requiem text is the song "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier." Montague specifically asks for a singer who is young enough to be age-appropriate for the expression of this expressive text. "I wanted someone who had the ability to sing simple," said Cumming.
But for Cumming, nothing about this piece is simple: There are deep personal associations he has with this work.
"The story of 'Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier' is my mother's story," he said. "She was born and raised in Canada and lost her father at the age of 14, and lost her husband at the age of 22. She was married in 1943, and within a month, her husband was crossing into Germany and was killed. But not before she was pregnant with my half-brother."
"Had it not been for this early tragedy," said Cumming, "I would not be here talking with you. I guess there is a part of me that wants to celebrate this story."
Cumming's mother is 90 and plans to attend the concert in Hartford.
The mezzo part will be sung by her grandniece, Edward Cumming's cousin's daughter Jessica Winn. She studied at Mannes and the San Francisco Conservatory.
"She will begin singing from the stage," said Cumming, "but later in the work, she sings the melody from within the hall to create a sense of distance. ... The music she will sing there is no longer part of the stage music."
The work begins with two trumpets from opposite sides of the hall, and drums surround the audience from three or four different points. "The audience will be feeling like anything could happen," said Cumming.
Besides the mezzo-soprano soloist, the work requires a large chorus (whose singers also are required to speak and sometimes even to hiss), and an orchestra with the percussion section augmented by six monkey drums, 12 tuned wine glasses, an alarm bell, 12 triangles and four fog horns.
"This is an audience that has become accustomed to newfangled ideas," said Cumming. "We have established a trust."
The Hartford audience has remained universally positive in it views about Cumming as a music director from the time of the unexpected announcement in January 2009 that he would step down as music director, through the extended search process to find a new music director.
Now, on the verge of his final performance in this role, many have reflected on how the sound of the orchestra and general musicianship has improved under his guidance.
This final concert will be a celebration for a conductor who will remain a vivid emblem of creativity and engaging energy for the Greater Hartford community.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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