Bartok and the MO


The Minnesota Orchestra has begun its 2010-11 season and I went to their concert this week. This concert fulfilled a dream for me. I’ve wanted to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra since Osmo Vanska arrived at Orchestra Hall as their Music Director. Their program this week included Samuel Barber’s The School for Scandal Overture, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F with piano soloist Lise de la Salle, and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. A really fun program, but one in which all the musicians would work quite hard, especially in the Bartok.

Barber’s The School for Scandal Overture bursts out of the orchestra and demands attention immediately. As I listened, the oboe solo pierced my heart with its sound. I wondered if Barber assigned any special meaning to the oboe in his works. He uses that woodwind instrument to poignant effect in this overture and in his Violin Concerto. A shout-out to Basil Reeve, Principal Oboe!

What’s a concerto? It is a musical composition for orchestra and a solo instrument that usually has three sections, or movements. Toward the end of the first movement, the composer usually gives the soloist a chance to really show off his or her technical skills with an extended solo or cadenza. George Gershwin wedded jazz with classical music in his concerto which has three movements but no cadenza in the traditional sense. Lise de la Salle, a young French pianist, gave George his due, with a solid understanding of the music and the percussion value of the piano. The subtler passages, however, lacked the jazz whimsy and playfulness, the lightness, that contrasts so wonderfully with the more percussive passages. As I listened, it also struck me that an American orchestra was playing jazz with a French pianist and a Finnish conductor! I think this qualifies Jazz and Gershwin as international (in addition to “An American in Paris”)(smile). A shout-out to Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano for his amazing playing, especially in the second movement. Bravo!

If a concerto is a piece for orchestra and a solo instrument, how can there be a concerto for orchestra? According to Bartok himself, who provided a detailed program note for its premiere in 1944, this piece is a “symphony-like orchestral work” whose title refers to “its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner.” So, this music shows off all the colors and virtuosity of the orchestra, and for this concert, the Minnesota Orchestra. It’s a work designed not only to show off the orchestra but to challenge the individual musicians as soloists. The MO’s musicians hit the Bartok out of the park. I was especially impressed with the middle movement, the Elegia, and its full-bodied sounds of sorrow and defiance emanating from the strings. A difficult piece like this, with all sorts of tricky rhythmical passages as in the fourth movement, shows the MO’s discipline in its precise ensemble playing as well as the individual virtuosos among the players. Bravo! Hurrah!

As usual, I was also paying close attention to Osmo Vanska and his conducting, his collaboration with this orchestra. Usually, I share a concert experience with Evan Quinn, my conductor-protagonist for the Perceval novels, but I gave him a vacation recently. This concert was all mine. And I’m looking forward to my next concert at the end of the month, “Future Classics,” the concert that culminates the MO’s Composer Institute week.

Live performance makes the music, the sound, immediate, and brings the heart and soul closer to the composer’s heart and soul — something Ludwig van Beethoven hinted at in the dedication of his Missa Solemnis….

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