Bela Bartók is perhaps the most obvious example. He collected and studied folk music both in his native Hungary and later in Turkey. Indeed, he was known primarily as an ethnomusicologist and teacher in the USA when he arrived here in 1940 as a penniless immigrant, fleeing his Nazi-occupied homeland.
The melodic and rhythmic elements of the folk music in which he steeped himself became part of his compositional vocabulary and can be heard strongly in the “Piano Concerto No. 3”, which he wrote in New York during 1945, the final year of his life. Lively dance-like elements and complex rhythms, for example, dominate both the opening and closing movements, while the “Adagio religioso” that separates them is classic Bartók “night music”, with emotionally intense chorales flanking a middle section that evokes the nocturnal sounds of nature.
Guest conductor Gilbert Varga and pianist Peter Serkin (son of the great Rudolph Serkin) gave us a beautiful performance of the concerto Friday night. Mr. Serkin’s concentration was fierce. His performance of the “Adagio” was deeply felt, and his playing in the concluding “Allegro vivace” rondo was volcanic in its intensity. Mr. Varga and the orchestra supported him in fine style.
When Mr. Varga conducted the orchestra back in the summer of 2010, I noted that he “worked the podium with the cheerfully physical intensity of someone who truly loves both his music and his musicians.” I saw that same happy engagement Friday night. His gestures were large but precise and his interpretations were marked by carefully shaped phrases and a wide range of tempi and dynamics.
This was most apparent in his approach to Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of “Pictures at an Exhibition”, Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 memorial tribute to his friend the Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann. Many arrangers have had a go at this piano suite but Ravel’s version, produced in response to a 1922 commission from the noted conductor Serge Koussevitsky, remains the most popular. Conducting without a score, Mr. Varga gave it a widescreen Technicolor Dolby 7.1 THX treatment, full of big (but nevertheless precise) gestures, marked contrasts, and high drama.
“Gnomus” was particularly menacing, “The Market at Limoges” notably raucous, “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” wonderfully cartoonish, and the “Catacombs” most ominous. I think “The Great Gate at Kiev” might have had more impact with fewer pauses, but the final bars were appropriately grandiose and the audience loved it.
They also loved the many fine solo performances. Ravel’s orchestration is filled with opportunities for individual players to show off their skills, and the symphony musicians made the most of them. Some of the many notable solo breaks included saxophonist Nathan Nabb‘s melancholy voice of the troubadour in “The Old Castle,” Principal Trombone Tim Meyers on French C tuba in the lumbering “Bydlo,” guest trumpeter Andrew Balio (Principal Trumpet for the Baltimore Symphony) in the opening “Promenade,” the entire woodwind section in the “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” and the entire brass section throughout. I apologize to those I left out; everyone sounded terrific.
The evening opened with a brisk, high-energy reading of the overture to Glinka’s 1842 fairy-tale opera “Ruslan and Lyudmila.” It’s one of those pieces that used to crop up often as “filler” on classical LPs—a function it still serves on classical radio stations today. Its alluring melodies and neat little solo tympani part are irresistible, especially when performed with this kind of zest. As in “Pictures,” Mr. Varga worked without a score.
Next on the calendar: Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu is on the podium for Silbelius’s “Finlandia” and Fifth Symphony along with Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” Markus Groh is the pianist. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, February 1 and 2. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org