Hungarian Inspirations | Bartok Piano Concerto

Altria Masterworks Series


   
 

Conductor: Mischa Santora, Guest

Guest Artists: Orion Weiss, Piano

Program Repertoire

Derek Bermel A Shout, A Whisper, and a Trace
Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3
J. Strauss, Jr. Overture to "Gypsy Baron"
Brahms Hungarian Dances

Guest Conductor Mischa Santora

Mischa Santora, Music Director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, has guest conducted many of the leading orchestras in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. He recently gave his highly successful debut with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted a critically acclaimed production of Falstaff in Boston, and produced the North American premiere of Christian Jost’s Opera Death Knocks based on a libretto by Woody Allen with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Upcoming highlights include a return engagement with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, debut appearances with the Richmond and the Midland Symphonies, a special series of concerts with the Orquestra Sinfonica di Concepcion in the brand new Teatro de Lago concert hall, and a staged production of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in Cincinnati.  more...

Pianist Orion Weiss

"When you're named after one of the biggest constellations in the night sky, the pressure is on to display a little star power — and the young pianist Orion Weiss did exactly that in a high-powered and often ferocious recital Saturday afternoon at the Terrace Theater. Weiss has been racking up an impressive string of triumphs lately (he filled in at the last minute for an ailing Leon Fleischer last summer, turning in a raved-about performance with the Boston Symphony), and Saturday's recital showed why. Just 30, the pianist has an exceptionally clean technique with virtuosity to spare."  -Washington Post

"He is clearly a pianist to watch."  -Los Angeles Times

"...an effortlessly brilliant performer. ...With technique to burn and strongly personable energy, Weiss, who has already won the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, would seem to have a major career in front of him."  -The Arizona Republic

Pianist Orion Weiss is one of the most sought-after soloists and collaborators in his generation of young American musicians. His deeply felt and exceptionally crafted performances go far beyond his technical mastery and have won him acclaim from audiences, critics and colleagues in a wide range of repertoire and formats.  more...


Program Notes

A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace
Derek Bermel (1967―)

Written: 2009
Movements: Three
Style: Contemporary
Duration: Seventeen minutes

The great conductor Sergei Koussevitzky commissioned Béla Bartók to write his Third Piano Concerto (on tonight’s program) and paid for it in person. The Koussevitsky Foundation paid for Derek Bermel’s A Shout, A Whisper, and a Trace. Bermel provides an even closer connection to Bartók:

During the last five years of his life, the composer Béla Bartók lived and worked in New York City. As he approached the age of 60, in ill health and preoccupied with the destruction of his beloved native Hungary by the Nazis, he slowly began adapting to the unfamiliar surroundings. He kept in touch with his musical roots, joyfully transcribing a collection of Serbo-Croatian women's songs at the Columbia University library. Yet he struggled with the new language, the cultural barriers, and the speed and complexity of New York. He painstakingly attempted to navigate the crisscrossing streets in Queens, and he once spent three hours in the subway with his wife, "traveling hither and thither in the earth; finally, our time waning and our mission incomplete, we shamefacedly slunk home- of course, entirely underground."

Bartók wrote home about his mixed feelings of hope, alienation, and despair to colleagues like the violinist Josef Szigeti and the composer Zoltán Kodály, to his two sons, who remained in Budapest, and to his small array of American piano students and supporters, from Boston to Seattle. The translated letters, published by St. Martin's press, document the humbling struggle of a master composer, trying to make sense of life in America, a place where he was virtually invisible.

Years ago, while studying the Thracian folk style in Bulgaria, I read Bartók's letters. At the time, I had been mostly engaged with the correspondence concerning his early travels around Hungary. But as I began composing the final piece for my American Composers Orchestra residency, I felt drawn to reexamine the later letters. The fresh perspective enabled me to reflect anew on my own experiences living in unfamiliar countries and cultures. I began to muse on the curiously ironic―yet utterly typical―manner in which Bartók's last years unfolded; so many immigrants have arrived in my hometown―New York―brimming with the hopes, fears, and yearnings associated with exile. These revenants exist today; the ghosts are everywhere, present and enduring, as much a part of the city as the buildings and rivers around us.         

© 2012 Derek Bermel and John P. Varineau

 

Piano Concerto No. 3
Béla Bartók
(1881-1945)
Written: 1943
Movements: Three
Style: Contemporary
Duration: 24 minutes

Béla Bartók was safe in America after fleeing the horrors of World War II Europe, but he was not a happy or well man. He was poor, desperately homesick and―although he didn’t know it yet―dying from a form of leukemia. He didn’t compose any new music during the first two years of his exile in the United States. One bright spot during his American sojourn was that he was able to carry on his life-long passion, the study of folk music. As a visiting assistant at Harvard, he researched some 2600 as yet unclassified recordings of Yugoslav Folk music. Finally, in 1943, two Hungarian compatriots, Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Reiner, approached Serge Koussevitsky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony, and asked him to commission a work from Bartok. Even though Koussevitsky wasn’t particularly fond of Bartok’s music, he agreed, and personally delivered the first check to Bartok. The resulting piece was his Concerto for Orchestra. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin met with Bartók in that same year and asked him to write a violin sonata. Bartók delivered it the next year. He had three other projects: A viola concerto for Walter Primrose, a string quartet (to be his seventh) and a new piano concerto.

Bartók wrote his Third Piano Concerto as a birthday surprise for his wife, the concert pianist Ditta Pásztory. He hoped that she would be able to perform it after his death and earn some much-needed money. He was able to complete his work on the Concerto except for orchestrating the last seventeen measures. The Viola Concerto did not fare as well. At his death, there were only sketches which Bartók’s student, Tibor Serly, wove together to compose a posthumous work. The quartet never materialized.

The first movement of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 begins with a pastoral, nostalgic quality. It also exhibits the Hungarian folk music characteristics that Bartók spent so much of his life studying. The second movement, marked Andante religioso, is pure magic. Along with the hymn-like piano theme, there is a “night music” section where Bartók writes the songs of birds he heard―including the Baltimore oriole―while resting and recuperating in North Carolina. The third movement is a spirited rondo. Like his Concerto for Orchestra, this movement lets everybody―soloist, orchestra, and composer―display their virtuosity.

© 2012 John P. Varineau

 

Overture to “The Gypsy Baron”
Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825
1899)
Written: 1885
Style: Romantic
Duration: nine minutes

During his leisure time in Vienna, Brahms didn’t just sit in smoky cafes and listen to Gypsy music, (see the program notes on his Hungarian Dances). He also loved the waltzes of his friend Johann Strauss and “took to spending evenings sitting over beer in the summer air, plunged in the lilting stream of Strauss’s melodies, watching their driving force swaying around his fiddle in front of the band.” Strauss waltzes may have been the rage in Vienna, but they certainly weren’t considered “genteel.”   One German observer described Johann Strauss as “African and hot-blooded, crazy with life, he exorcises the wicked devils from our bodies and he does it with waltzes, which are the modern exorcism.”

Johann Strauss’s father was a band-leader and waltz-composer of some renown, so it seems ironic that the he wanted his son become a banker. (Or, perhaps the life of a professional musician two hundred years ago was as precarious as it is today!) Regardless, Johann studied the violin secretly with the concertmaster of his father’s orchestra. After obtaining a license to perform, presenters avoided hiring him if they also wanted to use his father. When his dad died in 1849, Johann merged his orchestra with his father’s, eventually surpassed his father's fame, and became one of the most popular waltz composers of the era.  He composed over 500 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other types of dance music.  When Strauss’s stepdaughter asked Johannes Brahms for an autograph, he wrote out a few bars of Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube and then wrote, “unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms.”

Strauss also wrote for the theater, completing nearly twenty operettas. With The Gypsy Baron, he hoped people might finally recognize him as something beyond a composer of “light” music. It never fulfilled that role. However, it was an immediate success at its premiere and with its succession of exotic gypsy melodies—and the requisite waltzes—it spawned many imitations. It also made Strauss a lot of money.

Perhaps Strauss did attain the status of a “serious” composer. Eduard Hanslick, perhaps one of the most influential music critics of the 19th century, called Strauss “Vienna’s most original genius . . . His melodic invention was inexhaustible. His rhythms were forever alive and changing.”  

©2012 John P. Varineau

 

Hungarian Dances
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Written: 1869-1872
Movements: Nine
Style: Romantic
Duration: 28 minutes 

When Johannes Brahms was only sixteen, he was already making his way in the world.  As a teenager―albeit a very talented one―Johannes taught piano lessons and picked up “gigs” wherever he could.  That meant playing at inns for a few marks and free food, and playing in the local theaters.

Occasionally, a touring artist would come to town.  Needing an accompanist, they might hire Brahms.  That’s how he met the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi.  They began performing together for private house parties and eventually went on a tour together.  As Jan Swafford, Brahms’s biographer explains:

“In those days people sat in smoky cafés and listened to tawny and exotic gypsy bands in much the same spirit with which another generation would sit in clubs listening to black men playing jazz.  In fact, the entire tradition of a lower-caste popular music percolating into more “sophisticated” styles began with gypsy music.”

Brahms learned the ins and outs of gypsy music by playing with Reményi.  His fascination with this urbanized version of Hungarian folk music lasted for the rest of his life.  Years later, Brahms “could sit for hours under the trees . . . nursing mugs of beer and listening to gypsy bands. . . .”

There was another benefit to touring with Reményi.  While they were in Hanover, they stopped in to meet Reményi’s former classmate and fellow Hungarian violinist, the world famous Josef Joachim.  While Reményi and Brahms eventually parted ways, Joachim and Brahms remained friends for life. Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto for Joachim.

Even after Brahms left Reményi and established himself as a composer on his own right, he would regale his friends with his “gypsy” style piano improvisations. In1869, he finally set some of these things to paper. Brahms told his publisher that they were “genuine gypsy children, which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk.” He called them Hungarian Dances and set them for piano, four hands. Brahms arranged three of them for orchestra and throughout the years other composers, including Antonin Dvořák, have completed the set.

©2012 John P. Varineau

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