May 4th, 2022
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra makes every member of the orchestra a soloist in this tour de force!
Carlos Miguel Prieto
Bela Bartok (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943)
- Composed for 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, 2 harps and strings
- First performed by the LPO on March 31, 1994
- Most recently performed on April 15, 2016
The composer Bela Bartok is considered one of the most important composers to come from Hungary (alongside Franz Liszt) and one of the titans of 20th-century classical music. In addition to his work as a composer, Bartok also helped found (along with fellow Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly) the study of comparative musicology, which has now come to be known as ethnomusicology.
In 1940, Bela and his wife Ditta fled Europe in the looming face of Nazi fascism and settled in New York City. Well known in the United States as a teacher, pianist, and ethnomusicologist, Bartok was not, however, well known as a composer and he found it difficult to write in America. Shortly after his arrival in the States, he began showing symptoms of a disease that persisted for years, and in late 1944, was diagnosed as leukemia. Sadly, this diagnosis came too late for any treatment to be effective.
In these last years of his life, Bartok became increasingly interested in leaving behind a means of provision for his wife, Ditta. He composed his third piano concerto (1945) with the intention that it would provide years of income for his wife performing it as a soloist, crafting the composition to be accessible and popular with audiences. In that same vein of thought, the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Bartok to write what would become Bartok’s most popular work, the Concerto for Orchestra, which had its premiere by the Boston Symphony in December of 1944. Bartok died on September 26, 1945, never seeing the full impact the Concerto for Orchestra would have.
Contrary to what the name implies, there is no one featured soloist with Bartok’s Concerto. Rather, the composer named it because each instrument group of the orchestra is given prominent solos and requires great virtuosity from all musicians on stage. In February 1945 Bartok revised the ending, extending the final movement by several bars, and the work is currently published with both endings, although his revised 1945 ending is most commonly heard.
The composition is divided into five movements, divided into a palindromic form that Bartok had previously used in his fourth string quartet (1928.) The heart of the work is its slow middle movement, flanked on either side by two virtuosic and flashy movements that lead us into his tonal universe at the very beginning through a deliberate and carefully crafted introduction and doesn’t relinquish its grip until the fiery and explosive finale.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) Tangazo
- Composed for 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, piano, percussion and strings
- Last performed by the LPO on March 30, 2000
Argentinian-born Astor Piazzolla immigrated with his family to Greenwich Village at the age of four and spent his formative years soaking in the musical culture of New York City. His first musical appetites were reportedly for jazz, Bach, and the tango. When Astor was eight, his father brought home a bandoneon – a small, buttoned accordion. This simple act was to become a life-determining incident for the young boy.
In the span of just a few years, Piazzolla was fielding job offers to travel the country as part of a tango band (to which his father refused to allow an eleven-year-old to participate) and in 1938, Astor moved to Buenos Aires where he finally became part of a tango band and began to study composition with Alberto Ginastera. At Ginastera’s urging, Piazzola traveled to Paris to study composition further with Nadia Boulanger.
Piazzolla went to Paris intending to focus his efforts on composing classical music, but when Boulanger heard one of Piazzolla’s tangos, she immediately congratulated him and encouraged him to pursue a career composing tangos. Piazzolla benefited immensely from his time in Paris, including seeing the American saxophonist Gerry Mulligan perform which gave Piazzolla the idea of forming his own ensemble to perform his compositions.
Tangazo is written in the style of Piazzolla’s “New Tango.” The ethos for this style of writing was best described by Piazzolla as “tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse” which does well at expressing the range of emotional color contained in his writing. Tangazo received its first performance in 1970 in Washington DC to less than Piazzolla’s approval. Of that performance Piazzolla said:
“The Ensemble Musical de Buenos Aires gave a good account of it,” he later recalled, “but somewhere it lost a pinch of salt and pepper. Those classical musicians are like that – they are from Buenos Aires, Argentineans, and yet it seems that the tango shames them. That is an old division that exists between the classical and the popular. The musicians of the Colón [the legendary Buenos Aires opera house] look at those of the tango as if they were trash. And it should not be so. It is a big lie. Some of the musicians of the Colón deserve to be in the worst nightclub in Buenos Aires. As I have played in some of those places, I can speak with knowledge of the subject.”
Thankfully, in the subsequent decades since this premiere, Astor Piazzolla’s music has become recognized for its musical contribution and for its artful blend of classical and popular traditions.
Michael Abels (b.1962) Delights and Dances
Delights and Dances was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization in honor of its 10th anniversary. The primary requirement of the original commission was that the work feature as many string soloists as possible! After the premiere, I revised the piece into this leaner version for string quartet and orchestra. It with a kind of pas de deux between the cello & viola. Once joined by the whole quartet, this serves as an introduction to the bluesy first half of the piece, which is accompanied only by pizzicato. This section features many solos for each of the quartet members, solos that are meant to sound improvised but are in fact carefully notated. The second half of the piece is a rousing bluegrass reel which is a celebration of virtuoso string playing, and the joy of making music together.
– Michael Abels