in: Reviews

February 21, 2011

Three Distinct Eastern European Visions from BCO

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The Boston Conservatory Orchestra, under the direction of Bruce Hangen, presented a concert of eastern European fare at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre on Sunday afternoon, February 20, to a sizeable and enthusiastic audience. The three works on the program by Dvorák, Bartók, and Kodály spanned a mere forty-one years; yet even straddling, as they did, the tumultuous turn of the twentieth century, together they evoked not so much a specific place or time as three distinct, idealized visions.

The Háry János Suite (1926), one of Zoltán Kodály’s most popular compositions, is drawn from a nationalistic musical theater work in the style of a German singspiel. Háry János is a spinner of yarns, and the suite begins with a “musical sneeze,” which in Hungarian folklore assures the veracity of the story being told. Kodály’s time studying in Paris was evident in the music’s impressionistic hues, particularly in the second movement, “The Viennese Musical Clock.” Earthy modal textures abounded, too, betraying Kodály’s fascination with the budding field of ethnomusicology. If the fifth movement, “Intermezzo,” lacked something in folkloric abandon, the sixth, “Entrance of the Emperor and his Court” pulled out all the stops. Nicholas Tolle’s delicate cimbalom, prominently featured, lent a beguiling shimmer to the protagonist’s tall tales.

To judge from the long ovation, the highlight of the afternoon’s concert for many in attendance was Jorja Fleezanis’s performance in Béla Bartók’s first violin concerto (1908). This early work is hardly one of the twentieth century’s great statements in the genre; that would be Bartók’s second violin concerto, composed thirty years later. Nonetheless, it features some of the sweetest and most tender music Bartók ever composed, an ode to a youthful infatuation that, when broken off, resulted in the piece being locked in a drawer for fifty years, not to be premiered until after the composer’s death. Ms. Fleezanis imbued the solo line with searing intensity, and the orchestra, with whom she demonstrated a strong rapport throughout the piece, particularly in the transparent, contrapuntal textures at the onset, clearly shared the audience’s admiration and refused to take a bow.

Antonín Dvorák’s seventh symphony (1885) is probably his most self-conscious attempt to infiltrate the ranks of composers in the great Austro-German pantheon, and for all its undeniable craft, it can come across as a bit blustery. Nonetheless, the Poco adagio movement was transparent and well balanced, the outer movements powerful and assured, and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Throughout the concert, the BCO played with the gusto and precision one would expect of students at one of our finest conservatories, marred only by a few minor flubs from the brass section. Maestro Hangen fared best in large gestures and broad strokes; energy slackened in some of the quieter sections, especially in the Kodály ; there were a few grand pauses in which tension deflated like a balloon. But in general, a burnished sound prevailed, abetted by the warm wood paneling of Sanders Theatre; with its unique, wide layout, this is an intriguing place for music, despite the relatively high noise floor.

The BCO provides a good opportunity for Boston Conservatory students in allowing them to write the program notes, but unfortunately this comes at the expense of any overarching programmatic cohesion, despite the obvious links between the pieces performed. The authors of the notes on the first two pieces acquitted themselves adequately enough, but two unbearable pages on Dvorák’s seventh demonstrate the worst kind of program note writing, the musical play-by-play, made worse by wince-inducing personification (in lines like, “the violins charge ahead”), interspersed with unrelenting and unnecessary comparisons of Dvorák to other composers. I would commend these aspiring music writers to pianist Jeremy Denk’s incisive excoriation of the form on his blog is here.

Ben Houge is a composer, digital media artist, and videogame audio designer.

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