HARTFORD - We witnessed the end of an era in Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night, as Edward Cumming conducted the last performance of his nine-year term as music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
Fans turned out en masse. And they turned out early. Even at 6:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the concert began, the hall was packed. While the pre-concert discussion between Cumming and composer Stephen Montague was engaging, the standing ovation that happened as it finished was a clear indication of appreciation for how significant and entertaining these discussions have been with Cumming at the helm.
It was the first of many standing ovations, each marking a different kind of appreciation, each saying thanks.
"A woman and I were both looking at the meats," Cumming said to the audience after the string of ovations that concluded the final work on the program. Cumming explained that he and the woman were standing in a grocery store. She looked at him and said, "aren't you gone yet?"
So for his first encore Cumming played the Slavonic Dance, Op. 72 No. 3 in F Major by Dvoostrokeak because, he explained, it is a piece that keeps saying goodbye. He pivoted to the audience and gestured at each cadence that interrupts the flow of the dance and laughter rung through the hall.
Then came the announcement the audience was waiting for: Cumming will stay in the area. He has accepted a position conducting The Hartt Symphony Orchestra at The Hartt School.
He closed the evening with a rousing performance of the "Rakoczy March" from "The Damnation of Faust" by Berlioz.
The ceremonial nature of the evening did not diminish the reception of the complex program, which in and of itself was a masterpiece of coordination. The evening was possible only because of an extraordinary effort by several local choral organizations.
The event opened with the U.S. premiere of Stephen Montague's Requiem. The work was a carefully constructed amalgam of innocence and tragedy in sound. Mezzo-soprano Jessica Winn sang "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" in pure colors. She sang from two different locations within the hall and was able to capture the ethereal qualities that this music needed, especially during the passages in which the English of the text was layered against the Latin text of the Requiem itself.
There were young percussionists set up on either side of the hall and a children's choir that sang backstage. There were percussionists playing several bass drums in the back of the hall, and at times during the work we were immersed in sound from every direction.
The Hartford Chorale and CONCORA prepared by Richard Coffey, and the Connecticut Children's Chorus, prepared by Stuart Younse, all did incredible work to articulate this challenging score.
After intermission we heard the Te Deum, Op. 22 by Hector Berlioz. Like the Montague Requiem, this infrequently heard masterwork was filled with the unexpected.
The pacing of the six movements of the Te Deum was handled efficiently by Cumming. The work hit its first peak during the fourth movement, "Christe, Rex gloriae," which Cumming took at a quick and bouncy tempo. Tenor Steven Tharp brought out the operatic qualities of "Te ergo quaesumus" with a voice that filled the hall effortlessly. The concluding "Judex crederis" warned of judgment in an intense and powerful musical language.
The end of the program was met with waves of sound during an extended standing ovation.
Cumming has a permanent place in the collective memory of this region. His legacy with the HSO will be formed from the memories of nine years of programs, and by an orchestra that improved under his leadership.
The HSO plays beyond the technical requirements of the music, beyond the expectations of the profession - the orchestra plays with a sense of joy. I can imagine no better monument to a conductor.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at