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Tag Archives: Béla Bartók

Tonight’s Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concert featured a full program of interesting selections, including Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Béla Bartók’s Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. Guest conducting tonight from the St Louis Symphony was David Robertson.

Of course the unfortunate story of tonight’s concert was not that of the musicians on stage but the absolutely awful audience. Truly, on behalf of the audience, I apologize to the BSO for our collective behavior tonight. Now, the somewhat expected cacophony of coughing and seat cushions are excusable at the beginning of what will surely be a long cold season. It could be a good time to suggest that coughing should be suppressed, if at all possible, until the loud parts, but even then we should not feel open to pretending like there aren’t 2,000 other people who are trying to listen and enjoy the music. Also not particularly at fault are the Falling Chairs, which I’ve written about before as a metric to gauge attendance on any given night. Tonight’s Falling Chairs were plentiful, though I didn’t need them to know that the two nearly completely empty rows around me were indicative of a more sparse attendance that usual. However it was none of these usual things that were particularly prevalent tonight that bothered me.

Rather, it started with the incessant whispering behind me in the middle orchestra section. Several other, loud distractions were also audible, including what sounded like a dropped box of wood from a balcony and the distinct sound of a glass bottle hitting the floor and rolling for a few seconds. The worst offenses of the evening were the no fewer than two cell phone rings that went off at various points. This is the beginning of my third season of attending concerts at Symphony Hall, and in that time, this might be the first time I can recall a single cell phone going off, let alone two. Overall, the noises were distracting and mostly avoidable, and it’s by far the worst experience at Symphony Hall I’ve ever had in this regard.

Musically I’m ashamed to admit that it was difficult to concentrate or relax fully. Coming in, I was most familiar with the Brahms, since I love his music. I would not say that I am so well versed in the progression of the relatively short Tragic Overture, but I would need to hear the BSO performance again in order to make a judgment. There was an element of seriousness that I was not feeling, though it’s unclear if this was a byproduct of my overall experience or whether or not a starker contrast in dynamics, for instance, might have helped.

Perhaps most anticipated was the Doctor Atomic Symphony. My college degree is in physics, so it’s not a terrible surprise that anything called “Doctor Atomic” might pique my curiosity. In this piece, Adams has adapted his opera into a symphonic form. It lends itself well to this setting, arranged in three parts: The Laboratory, Panic, and Trinity. Since I’m not familiar with the opera, I was most intrigued by the idea of Trinity being the third movement. The line demarcating peace and fright was unclear, and I’m not sure that my one experience alone was able to resolve this. I enjoyed Adams’ use of solo horns to create a sense of urgency. The frenetic tempo throughout The Laboratory and Panic were well suited for the task of engaging a nervous energy. Generally speaking, pieces like this are tough for me to appreciate, I think in part because I don’t ever understand the back story. But here, it was easy to envision a story for this piece, while knowing something however abstract about its background. Perhaps my only regret for this piece is that its title inevitably reminds me of some kind of 40s-era Marvin the Martian cartoon, where Doctor Atomic tries to take over the planet and the Duck Dodgers of the 21-1/2 century try to save the day.

Following the intermission, pianist Nicolas Hodges performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This is a frenetic piece that looked like it would challenge any soloist, but Mr Hodges performed it admirably. I appreciate Prokofiev’s ballets and much of his other music, but between the Tragic Overture and Doctor Atomic, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around this piece.

Finally on the concert program was Bartók’s Suite from Miraculous Mandarin, a ballet. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, and my general impression of Bartók is not particularly favorable but also not particularly memorable. My friend DA enjoyed this piece and the Brahms the most, and while I’m glad I heard the Bartók, I won’t likely reach for a recording any time soon.

This concert in particular got me thinking about the difficulty of programming a concert. By this I am referring to the process of selecting music that will be played together at any given concert. In many ways, it’s similar to creating track lists for a standard length 74 to 80 minute CD, especially considering that a concert is around 120 minutes with the intermission. Sometimes the themes are obvious, such as All-Mozart or Romantic Symphonies. But often times the themes are more subtle. I think that there might have been a reason to include four intensely dramatic pieces together, but like the symphonic musical form, I’d often appreciate a break of sorts that introduces lighter material thematically. Regardless, one of my favorite aspects of the BSO is its ability to introduce me to new music and challenge my pre-conceived notions. I’m grateful that tonight’s concert succeeded in both regards.

For me, it was destined to be a night of discovery, since I was not particularly familiar with any of the pieces on the schedule for this week’s program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The program featured Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, Bohuslav Martinů’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. I anticipated these pieces from least to greatest in this order as well, knowing nothing about any of them save Dvořák’s symphony. The BSO were led by guest conductor Christopher von Dohnányi, and Frank Peter Zimmerman was the violin soloist for the Martinů.

The relative simplicity of the Bartók Divertimento was plainly apparent in the lack of winds, brass, and percussion, giving a thin sound to the piece that here sounded relatively uninteresting. If I had closed my eyes for a moment, I might well have been listening to an advanced amateur string orchestra playing this piece just as well, since it did not appear to require the resources of our orchestra, who were at reduced strength anyhow. The second and third movements were slightly more pleasing to me, as they seemed to ease into a more comprehensible melodic structure, but I never got a grasp on the piece and was happy to quickly forget about it.

One quirk of Symphony Hall is that anyone can gauge the attendance by two metrics: one audible and one visual. The visual metric is by simply looking around for empty seats. After the intermission, I counted at least 20 seats directly in front of me, which for the BSO equates to chirping crickets. However, the arguably more amusing metric for attendance is the Sounds of the Bouncing Chairs. The seats in the hall are older, and they are joined and supported by a wooden frame that can make an unpleasant and loud noise when kicked or opened. Some of the chairs slam down, while others do this bouncing routine giving it a kind of fake reverberation. In fact it is good practice to open any collapsed chairs around you prior to the start of a piece, so they aren’t apt to be disturbed during the performance. Otherwise, you may as well yell, “Timber!” as the seats fall. Because the number of empty seats are limited, the number of falling chairs is probably related to the number of empty seats. In a typical performance here, which is often filled close to capacity, one usually hears no more than one falling chair during any given piece (usually the first) and no more than two throughout the evening. Tonight, during that Bartók, I counted four but may well have missed some in the later movements.

I was curious about the Martinů, since the concerto is one of my favorite musical forms (so long as it does not feature the flute, sorry). Additionally, having played the violin, there’s a certain place in my heart for violin pieces (of which there are so many). Yet my expectations were tempered by the knowledge that the Martinů was a twentieth century piece, which isn’t quite as alarming as post-1970s Miles Davis but has a greater probability of sounding like John Coltrane’s Ascension (confusing and dissonant but at least very long). I should say that Zimmerman gave a nice performance, navigating through tricky chords and double stops without making a mess of things. But there was nothing to me that was particularly compelling about the music itself, and this is another case in which I am fortunate to have the BSO expand my musical horizon but thankful that I can file Martinů away for the time being.

And finally, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 followed the intermission, which I spent in preparation for the demands of listening to a symphony properly. It’s not that they are necessarily so dense that it requires a vast amount of preparation, but the symphonic form is so rich with its instrumentation and movement of themes that the appreciation of the piece can be heightened in the right mindset. I actually recognized Symphony No. 8 in part, which was not altogether surprising to me but certainly welcome. I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate that the symphonic form is where the BSO shine. With orchestra seats in KK, we heard the full extent of the symphony once again. There really is no electronically reproduced musical experience quite the same. I found the Dvořák to be pleasant; this is not to my ears a particularly great symphony, in terms of its inability to elicit a particularly interesting range of emotions. I do think that the composer was, perhaps, a gifted melodist, which endears me more toward his chamber music, which I have explored some but far from exhaustively.

I suppose that it is unreasonable to expect every night at the BSO to reveal a musical gem that to my eyes remains unpolished and undiscovered. And while I have heard other music by Bartók and Dvořák, I am not at all familiar enough with their work to claim that tonight was any more than an introduction to all three composers, one I am thankful to have experienced.


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