Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Oregon Symphony goes from dark to light with late works by Sibelius and Bartók topped off by Dvořák

© Bernard Martinez
Guest Review by Phil Ayers

An evening of some worthy, but somewhat unknown, music was presented by Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony with guest pianist Jean-Philippe Collard last Sunday (April 12) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Two of the pieces were Portland debuts and two were among the last works of their composers. What could well have been a melancholy experience was anything but: the "Slavonic Dances," Op. 72, of Antonín Dvořák would keep any listener wide awake and free of any sadness!

Maestro Kalmar's comments before the concert, while waiting for one of the bassoonists who was delayed and who arrived safely were an apt introduction to the evening. Jean Sibelius' last published work, "Tapiola" ["Realm of Tapio:], is a paean to a forest god in the Finnish national epic saga "Kalevala." As Kalmar remarked, the work has to do with trees and "we in Oregon know all about trees." Sibelius wrote a poem, included in the program notes, that introduces the piece:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

And nineteen minutes of brooding, savage-sounding music aligned itself perfectly with this poetry. Musically, I could not help but think that "ensemble" was the watchword of this piece; the work in the woodwinds was especially commendable. It was unfortunate that Sibelius wrote (or at least published) nothing after "Tapiola" which was composed in 1926. He lived for a long time in severe depression and spoke little about his music in his last years.

Jean-Philippe Collard, French pianist, came onstage to play Béla Bartók's Third Piano Concerto. I remember hearing this work as a young college student when I purchased a record of two of Bartók's concerti. Impressed by their grittiness, but knowing very little about music at that time, just that I was fascinated by "modern" music, I remember playing the record often and always being held in awe. Bartók was a sad man: suffering many losses and having to escape from his native Hungary when it was overtaken by the Nazis. He found a new home in the U.S. but his music did not have much popularity here and he worked mainly on commissions to earn money. Like Sibelius, he suffered from depression and was diagnosed with leukemia in 1942. His “Concerto for Orchestra,” probably his most famous composition, arose out of this time. The cancer was in remission by the summer of 1945 and Bartók and his wife Ditta, a pianist, lived for awhile in Asheville, North Carolina. He wrote the concerto for her as a birthday surprise. However, his health worsened and he returned to New York, managing to finish this concerto four days before he died. Although I used the word "grittiness" earlier, this concerto rather gives the lie to that as it is playful, lilting, and whimsical. The middle movement Adagio religioso is an excellent mixture of what sounds like Appalachian folk music, hymns, and bird-calls. For one who considered himself an atheist, perhaps this signaled a turn in Bartók outlook.

Everything described here was expertly manifested by Collard. At 67, he plays deftly and attentively, occasionally using a score for reference. (It was noted that he would turn two or three pages at a time.) The aforementioned middle movement, which is really central to the whole piece, was executed sensitively. It was enthralling. I would like sometime to hear Collard play the middle movement (indeed all of the work) of Ravel's piano concerto, which is similar in scope.

A complete change of mood took place in the second part of the evening's program. Antonín Dvořák's second set of "Slavonic Dances" was given a lively, playful reading by the orchestra. It would have been helpful to have an English translation of the titles of each dance, but with some help I found that Starodávný, the title of the second and sixth dances, means "of yore"; Špačírka means "walking" (fifth dance); Kolo is "round" (seventh dance); and Sousedská is "vicinal" ("neighborly," the eighth dance). The eight dances range from delicate to sweeping, brooding to bold, carnival-like and brash to contemplative. The varied tempi provide and hold interest, but at times a few messy entrances, especially in the brass, distracted this listener.

Dvořák had composed a popular first set of dances and his publisher Simrock wanted a second set, but the composer demurred: "You will forgive me but I simply have not the slightest inclination now to think of such light music." But he did not simply dash off quickly these lively dances but gave them his best craft and skill. Dvořák was mainly interested in larger-scale works but Simrock insisted that he produce more dances and paid well for them. It's what "sells" that counts, then (1886) as now, we suppose.

Both the Sibelius and the Dvořák works were OSO premiere performances, and it is hoped they will be played and heard again.

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