It is a measure of the breadth of talent in the Boston area that an orchestra such as the Mercury Orchestra, which presented an outstanding program at Sanders Theater Saturday night, is considered amateur. In any other town, anywhere else, this orchestra would stand its ground with many a fully professional ensemble. And, led by the graceful, competent and deeply committed Channing Yu, they play with passion, control, and just plain chops.
The program consisted of 3 works by Miklós Rózsa and the 20th-century masterpiece, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Both composers were part of the great intellectual migration from Europe during the Second World War, but while Rózsa found great success in Hollywood for some of the most memorable scores of all time and won Oscars for Ben Hur, Spellbound and A Double Life, Bartok died impoverished and abandoned in New York, his true greatness only being gradually recognized after his untimely death.
It was a brilliant stroke to pair these two Hungarian composers, illuminating their personal takes on their nationality, revealing some similarities in rhythmic complexity, and harmonic style. Both are masters of orchestration and orchestral color.
Rózsa’s brief Overture to a Symphony Concert, Op. 26A, which opened with a brass fanfare reminiscent of his score of Ben Hur, allowed the violin section to show off its high register and perfect intonation. Rozsa’s Notturno ungharese Op. 28 began with a warm clarinet solo, like a sun rising on a beloved landscape. Sort of a Hungarian Appalachian Spring, it also featured an impressive brass section crescendo and beautiful flute and concertmaster solos.
Three Hungarian Sketches, Op. 14, showed the strings to fine effect, particularly the viola section solo in the Pastoral movement, and with the final movement, Danza a furious dance in which the and violins shone along with the horns. The composer shows an incredible ear and sense of color. He knows how to use the power of large sections in unison, contrasted with beautiful melodies, and a strong sense of form. Miklós Rózsa definitely deserves a broader audience.
After intermission, Yu led a well-paced, logical and musical rendition of the Concerto for Orchestra. One of Bartók’s last works, it was commissioned by the BSO’s Serge Koussevitzky as a tribute to his late wife. The world owes Koussevitzky a great debt for this unquestionable masterpiece. Mercury’s worthy performance opened with truly mysterious triple pianissimo rustles in the large violin sections. The Elegia is the mother of nearly every scary swamp scene in a horror movie since and it was suitably mysterious. The Intermezzo with its haunting viola section solo was taken faster than average, with the result that the whole movement had a more waltz-like feel—interesting variation, but it worked. All in all, the tempi were fluid, organic and right. There is obviously a great deal of love and respect between conductor and musicians, evidenced by the smiles shared at the end of the performance. These are critical ingredients in any successful performance, and the result was a treat for the audience, the musicians, and the composers. Well done!