All in all this was a fascinating program conducted by someone that the BSO will hopefully put (firmly) into their rotation of distinguished guest conductors.
By Susan Miron
The Boston Symphony continued its run of top-notch programs — and performances — this week with the auspicious debut of the thirty-five year old Czech-born conductor Jakub Hrůša along with the return engagement of German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. Recently granted tenure by the Bamberg (Germany) Symphony, Hrůša has established himself as a prominent proponent of Czech music.(His latest CD — Antonin Dvorák’s three Slavonic Rhapsodies and his Symphonic Variations with the PKF-Prague Philharmonia — was just released on Pentatone. Arts Fuse review) Hrůša is a nimble, sensitive, energetic, and gifted conductor. Interestingly, his program, albeit beautifully played, was not about conventional beauty. Instead, aside from Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto #2, the line-up revolved around violence, terror, and agony — a massacre, a witches’ Sabbath, and a father and two sons separately suffering horrible deaths.
The concert began with “Šárka” the third in a cycle of six patriotic symphonic poems from Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (My Country, written in 1875).The best known entry in the cycle is “The Moldau” (Vltava). The warrior heroine Šárka, who also inspired operas by Zdeněk Fibich and Leoš Janáček, vows revenge on the male sex after her lover is untrue to her. Hugh McDonald’s program notes suggest the nature of Šárka’s payback.
A group of armed men is heard riding up on a mission to punish the rebel women. Šárka ties herself to a tree (dramatized by a clarinet solo, beguilingly played by William Hudgins), an act that forces the men’s leader, Ctirad, to pity her and then succumb to her alluring beauty. The men begin to celebrate, soon turning to drink, which leads to dancing a lopsided polka. They eventually fall asleep (Bassoonist Richard Svaboda graphically snores). A horn gives the signal for the surprise attack , but before the women set about their bloody doings the clarinet suggests that even the hard-hearted Sárka can suffer a moment of regret. Still, “the slaughter is merciless.”
Bartók’s Violin Concerto #2 is one of the virtuoso staples of the twentieth-century violin canon. Its premiere was performed in 1939 by the famed Hungarian violinist Zoltán Szekely and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg (recorded on Hungaroton). A brilliant orchestrator, Bartók began a friendship with Szekely after the composer Zoltán Kodály introduced the two in 1921; Bartók was 39 years old, Szekely 17. The friendship lasted until Bartók’s death in 1945, after which Szekely continued to promote and interpret the composer’s music until he died in 2001 at the age of 97. The first Boston performance was given by Yehudi Menuhin in 1945.
Bartók began to compose his second violin concerto just after finishing “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” (1936). The political situation in Budapest was deteriorating –Bartók would decamp for America in 1940 — and he was insistent that a German publisher not have any of his work, “even if it means that no work of mine will ever be published again. This is fixed and final.” The concerto begins with memorably throbbing harp chords (which recur throughout the movement), followed by a solo violin part that contains some of the most transfixing music Bártók ever wrote. The harp part is treacherously difficult — and exposed — throughout the concerto. The BSO’s Jessica Zhou played it with her customary sensitivity. The first movement is mostly lyrical. The beating Romantic heart of this piece comes with the arrival of the second movement, a set of six variations on a short theme. This is passionate, achingly beautiful music.
Violinist Franz Peter Zimmerman played the concerto with technical brilliance, imagination, and complete control over vibrato and intonation. He is a favorite of the BSO, having played over a dozen concertos with the orchestra. One can understand why. Unlike many far showier violinists, he just stands there and delivers a magnificent performance. You can catch him playing this concerto on YouTube, or find another occasion to hear this extraordinary player live — which is always the more impressive option.
Two pieces based on stories by Gogol followed. The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1835-1881) is best known for three pieces — “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the opera “Boris Godunov,” and this concert’s offering, “Night on Bald Mountain,” part of which was used by Leopold Stokowski for a segment in Walt Disney’s feature-length cartoon Fantasia. The piece received a thrilling performance via its traditional 1886 arrangement, orchestration suppled by Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov — Mussorgsky’s “frenemy.” The satanic “Night” alluded to is St. John’s Eve, close to the summer solstice: this nightmare presents the listener with witches, goblins, and sorcerers gathering for an evening of debauchery on Bald Mountain. “The form and character of my work,” Mussorgsky wrote to a friend, “is Russian and original. It’s general tone is hot-blooded and — not dusted with German profundity.” The BSO’s performance was certainly hot-blooded. And thrilling.
Leoš Janáček’s (1854-1928) violent, bloody “Taras Bulba” Symphonic Rhapsody (1918) was based on Gogol’s yarn “Taras Bulba,” which was first published as a short story in 1835, then reworked as a prose epic in 1842. This was, oddly, a BSO premiere. Janáček read the narrative in 1905, and was moved by its tale of a nation trying to release itself from oppression. (By the time he had completed “Taras Bulba,” the state of Czecho-Slovakia had brought 200 years of Austro-Hungarian rule to an end.). Janáček adored Russian literature, and loved Gogol above all other Russian writers.
This was Janáček’s first significant orchestral work, and in it he aimed to show “that the fires, the tortures that could destroy the force of the Russian people are not to be found on earth.” Although the composer is reputed to have identified with the glorification of all the Slavic peoples, he chose a story that was violently anti-Pole and as well as antisemitic. The Cossacks are portrayed as utter barbarians. Set in 16th century Ukraine, then under Polish rule, this is a cut-and-slash tale about the eponymous aging Cossack and his two sons, Andrei and Ostap. All three meet untimely deaths. Associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova played her several solos beautifully, while James David Christie lent considerable distinction to his organ solos. All in all this was a fascinating program conducted by someone that the BSO will hopefully put (firmly) into their rotation of distinguished guest conductors.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.