Wednesday, May 20, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The idea behind Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is that a concerto is normally a virtuoso display piece for a soloist. What the Boston Symphony commissioned in 1943 was a piece that would display all the members of the orchestra, thus the title.

Well, no matter how good Koussevitzky's Bostonians may have been, they couldn't possibly be a match for MTT's San Franciscans when they are on, and they were really on tonight. This was a performance of unsurpassable precision, verve, and power. Particular high points were the character and the chuckle that the bassoons brought to their duet in "Game of Pairs", and the revelation throughout of really interesting and complex string work that's not normally heard.

Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, also exquisitely played, was also something of a concerto for orchestra, as the soloists were principal concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and first violist Jonathan Vinocour.

There was also a short piece by Sam Adams commissioned by a youth orchestra - putting the SFS on that is a bit like asking a chess grandmaster to play tiddlywinks - that seemed carefully crafted to prevent the casual listener from telling whether the performance was any good or not.

Weird disagreement between the pre-concert lecturer and the program notes about the Bartók, not that the lecturer cited the dispute. Bartók's "Interrupted Intermezzo" is interrupted by a brief outbreak of the march theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (the one representing the invading Germans), which Bartók greets with a musical raspberry. The story that Bartók's son told is that his father put this in because he was so irritated at hearing the Leningrad over and over on the radio during its brief heyday.

The lecturer said that new research in the former Soviet archives has proven that the march theme is actually a melody from Lehár's The Merry Widow. What did they need new research to discover that for? The resemblance between the themes has been noted from the beginning, but they're not actually the same. Anyway, the lecturer said that there's a new theory that of course Bartók recognized the Merry Widow reference, and instead of thumbing his raspberry at Shostakovich, he is laughing with Shostakovich at the Germans by quoting the Merry Widow part of the theme.

Maybe. But the program notes say that no, Bartók didn't know it was from The Merry Widow until someone pointed it out to him.

And it's still not the same theme flat out, just one that borrows its opening note sequence and changes its character. Here's Lehár. Here's Shostakovich. And here's Bartók.

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