Three other B's - Barber, Bartok and Bruckner

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Three other B's - Barber, Bartok and Bruckner

Post by Ricordanza » Wed May 07, 2014 6:03 am

The piece begins very softly, with minimal instrumentation, and then slowly, inexorably builds to full strength.

It’s an intriguing way of beginning an orchestral work. It demands the listener’s attention at the very beginning, and then carries the listener along on an emotional ride as the piece progresses. It’s also a schematic for the opening of all three works on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program on Thursday night, May 1.

Samuel Barber’s familiar Adagio for Strings was the opening work in this concert, led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Most of us have heard the work numerous times as background for sad events and in the movies (Platoon), but hearing it in concert heightens the experience and demonstrates the power of this type of structure. This brief work also illustrates how great beauty can be achieved through simplicity of melody and harmony. And when played by the justly famous Philadelphia strings, it is something to savor.

Bartok’s rarely heard Violin Concerto No. 1 begins with a gentle violin solo, and then, other instruments join in as the music becomes more concentrated, but never overpowering. The second, and final movement, is much more lively, contains some “Bartokian” folk elements and rhythms, and offers some virtuoso flourishes. Still, compared to some other concertos, we never get the feeling that the composer is merely trying to “wow” the audience. The harmonic language of this piece, completed in 1908, is certainly less radical than later Bartok compositions, but still has just enough unconventionality to place it firmly ahead of its time. Violin soloist Lisa Batiashvili provided a magnificent introduction to many listeners who, like me, had never heard this work before. (The last Philadelphia Orchestra performance of this concerto was in 1961!)

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is both massive and unfinished. While he “only” completed three movements, the work as it stands contains a full hour of intense and, at times, deeply emotional music. But is it worth the listener’s effort? That’s what I was thinking (at times) while the orchestra played the first and third movements. The first and third movements are particularly expansive in their form, using the framework described above not only at the beginning, but rather to flesh out each theme. While “expansive” is one term to describe these movements, a simpler word would be “long.” But this was my first opportunity to hear the entire work, so I’ll await future encounters for a final verdict. The second movement, however, made an immediate and positive impact. The music of this Scherzo is powerful and exciting, and it’s also tautly structured, in contrast to the outer movements. Incredibly, Yannick led this long and complex work from memory. He elicited a high level of playing from the orchestra (which we have come to expect). Despite some shaky entrances in the third movement, overall, it was a superb performance by the Philadelphians.

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