Sometimes the critics get it wrong. Many artists whom they have dismissed for years as cheap and vulgar are now recognized for the quality of their work and the contributions to their art. In the world of comedy, The Three Stooges immediately come to mind. Criticized for years as the worst example of lowbrow slapstick, they have slowly earned the appreciation of a large audience, and even (gasp) a few of those critics as well.
In music, Franz Liszt has long been a favorite whipping boy, his music and career often consigned to the cellar of empty virtuosity. But the critics have been as wrong about Liszt as they were about Moe, Larry and Curly (or Shemp). He was certainly a brilliant virtuoso, but he could also be a visionary innovator who explored or invented new forms and genres, and even dipped his toe into the pool (or swamp for some people) of atonality during the last years of his life. I was therefore pleased that the Newton Symphony Orchestra devoted almost an entire program on Oct. 3 at the former Rashi Auditorium in Newton to Liszt in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I was not disappointed. The orchestra, which is composed of dedicated amateurs reinforced by some strategically placed professionals, rose to the occasion. Under the firm but gentle control of Music Director James M Orent, his musicians played this demanding repertoire with skill, commitment and obvious enjoyment, and gave the small but enthusiastic audience a concert to remember.
The program did not open with Liszt, however, but rather with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72b. Now what was a work by Beethoven doing on a Liszt birthday concert? It was, in fact, an excellent choice. Liszt adored Beethoven throughout his life, and it is no accident that almost every portrait of Liszt in his studio features a bust of Beethoven looking over his shoulder. The Newton Symphony’s performance of the Leonore Overture started out a little tentatively, with some shaky intonation and ensemble, but it quickly settled into a groove of solid playing that they maintained throughout the entire evening.
The remainder of the program was vintage Liszt: the Piano Concertos No. 1 in E-flat Major, S. 124 and No. 2 in A Major, S. 125, the Hungarian Battle March, S. 119, and the symphonic poem Les Préludes, S. 97. Liszt wrote twelve symphonic poems between 1853 and 1861, and his works in the genre would go on to influence those by Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Sibelius. Les Preludes is the best known of the group (readers who are old enough might remember that it was the theme music for the old TV serial Flash Gordon), and the orchestra performed it beautifully. The brass was especially powerful, but thanks to Orent, they never overbalanced the rest of the orchestra.
The program also included two other Liszt warhorses: the piano concertos. Although these were first performed in the 1850s, Liszt was sketching them as early as 1830, when he was tearing up the concert halls of Europe with the brilliance of his piano playing, his seemingly inexhaustible charisma, and a great profile that made audiences swoon. The concertos, however, are not mere displays of empty virtuosity; they are also good examples of Liszt’s ability to maintain a sense of organic unity within large forms and structures. This is especially true for the second concerto, as it is for Liszt’s masterpiece, the Piano Sonata in B minor. That said, you still need a big pianist with a big technique to play these difficult works, and we heard one at this concert: Oleksandr Poliykov. Technical difficulties seem to disappear under his hands, and he dispatched these great showpieces with aplomb and a big, warm and beautiful sound. This is a young pianist to watch, and admire.
There had to be at least one “Hungarian” piece for Liszt’s birthday, and the program featured an unfamiliar work in the genre, the Hungarian Battle March. Liszt’s fellow Hungarians were always proud of their native son, and applauded his vivid musical evocations of their culture. The Newton audience can be equally proud of their orchestra, and gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.