Conductor: Marin Alsop
Traditional Eastern Eastern European Music - Harmonia
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 35 - James Ehnes
As I am going down the list of my season opening concerts, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance last night was obviously a much anticipated one. Although it was not technically their official season opening concert, which took place in Baltimore last week, it was the first time I was going to hear them since last July, eons away. I was all the more looking forward to it that the program smartly associated Bartok and Tchaikovsky in a back-to-the-folk-roots performance introduced by Harmonia, an eclectic group focusing on the musical traditions to be found in the region spanning from the Danube to the Carpathians. Since I am getting ready for my first extended trip to Eastern Europe, I am especially grateful for the perfectly timed double treat of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra last night and Bartok’s The Wooden Prince with the NSO tonight. That should fully prepare me for Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in Budapest later this month. But beside the fortuitous Bartok prep work, my main goal was without a doubt to hear yet one more time Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto, the one that introduced me to both the virtuosic composing talent of Tchaikovsky and the magical possibilities of the violin.
To get everybody in the right frame of mind, the five instrumentalists of Harmonia played three suites of pieces, brilliantly highlighting the vigorous earthiness, infectious rhythms and wistful melancholy of traditional Eastern European folk music. Short, but efficient.
Bartok’s concerto turned out to be a multi-faceted, engaging piece of work, starting with an understated, suspenseful landscape that was eventually followed by a whimsical “Game of Pairs” during which some wind instruments were vibrantly, if not quite as goofily as maestra Alsop had hoped, paired to similar ones in the orchestra. This unique brand of fun was a big step from the eerie Elegia, and then the agitated Intermezzo, but all ended well with the life-asserting, jubilant grand finale. With this concerto that he composed in a couple of months in the Adirondacks towards the end of his life, Bartok achieved the no small feat of successfully combining the immediate appeal of his native folk music and the more subtle attractiveness of classical music. The whole orchestra beautifully rose up to the challenge with a richly nuanced interpretation, and that has certainly helped deepen my appreciation for the Hungarian composer.
Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was smartly scheduled last on the program; no doubt to make sure nobody would escape during intermission. Another one of those perennial favorites that keep the crowds coming back for more, it has never lost the power to stun its audience after its famously rocky start. While its first notes are not quite as authoritatively attention-grabbing as the Mendelssohn’s, their unassuming yet intriguing nonchalance remains an unsurpassed way to ease the listener into the amazing crescendo that is to follow. And it only gets better, much better. Yesterday evening, the soloist was fast-rising, Canadian-born James Ehnes, who thoroughly succeeded in steadily expressing the various moods of the work. After a minimalist Brahms concerto in New York last week, I got to experience the same kind of pared-down approach to the Tchaikovsky last night, making me wonder if this is just a mere coincidence or a new trend. Whatever it is, I made sure to fully savor the poised elegance of Ehnes’ interpretation, especially in the delicate Canzonetta, one of Tchaikovsky’s most touching creations. Impressive displays of technical wizardry abounded too, of course, and with the orchestra clearly in their comfort zone and relishing every minute of it, the last piece on the program was for sure as immediately satisfying as the first time I heard it, which says a lot indeed.