for those of you who aren’t (yet) listening to *stumptown’s 89.9, let me just say it’s gotta be the most kick-ass classical radio station in the country. seriously. there are a million reasons why this is true, but without question, a key ingredient is the brilliant music director spinning all those oldies but goodies: john pitman. i decided to pick mr. pitman’s brain about béla bartók’s concerto for orchestra which the oregon symphony will be playing saturday, sunday, and monday at the schnitzer (and tuesday in salem!). mr. pitman, the floor is yours:
Some composers take a long time to appreciate. Béla Bartók is pretty much near the top of my list for difficult composers. Now, it’s not that I don’t “get” him, because I do (I’ve been listening to the guy’s music for over 25 years). Bartók is a tough nut to crack, and I think it’s because you can’t just listen to one of his works and know the whole composer. But you can get a good sense of him by listening to the Concerto for Orchestra – arguably one of his greatest works, immediately identifiable and uniquely his own.
Several summers back, I decided that I wanted to get to know Bartók’s music better. So I bought two 2-CD sets and listened to them over a few weeks whenever I was just puttering around the house, listening to the music while watering the hostas and astilbes, under the shade of tall trees. It may not have been what Bartók had in mind. Still, considering he ventured out into the countryside in his young adulthood to record folk music before it was lost forever, maybe Bartók among the foliage was the right setting after all. Anyway, the plants didn’t die, and I gained a much greater appreciation for this guy’s stuff, including his Concerto for Orchestra, which I generally thought was thorny and thistly. OK, enough with the garden analogies…
Part 1: Structure ~ It’s easy to follow. The Concerto for Orchestra was written as a showcase for the various sections of the symphony orchestra, including strings, winds, brass and percussion. Though it’s a 20th century work, you can follow this piece just as easily as any Haydn symphony. It’s called A-B-A (not the Swedish pop band). A-B-A simply states a theme, you hear a second related theme, and then the original theme somewhat altered.
Part 2: Fun and Games ~ Hey, this piece is actually kind of funny sometimes! Bartók named the second movement Giuoco delle coppie (Game of the couples). Bartók uses different intervals for the bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets, with a side drum beating out a rhythm at the beginning and end. Well, it sounds funnier than I can explain it.
Part 3: Pathos ~ The central third movement is a kind of sad song sung by the orchestra. Bartók’s own word for this movement is “lugubrious.” You can’t have the comedy without the tragedy.
Part 4: Satire ~ The Intermezzo has a great back story to it. Bartók was in a convalescent home when Shostakovich’s 7th symphony had its radio debut. The march theme in the first movement (depicting Nazi armies invading Leningrad) sounded so superficial to Bartók, that he lampoons it in this movement. What I don’t think Bartók knew is that Shostakovich was doing his own lampooning – the march theme was based on one of Hitler’s favorite melodies. Now that puts a little different spin on things, doesn’t it?
Part 5: Finale ~ One of the greatest openings to a final movement in classical music, ever, IMHO. A fantastic brass fanfare, followed by rapid-fire string work and a synthesis of all the qualities of Bartók’s music that we’ve experienced so far throughout the work: mastery of orchestral techniques, those Hungarian rhythms and colors, and most all, that language I called Bartókian. It sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard.