A Fresh Look at Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Samuel Adams, Mozart, Bartók: Alexander Barantschik (violin), Jonathan Vinocour (viola), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 22.5.2015 (HS)


Samuel Adams: Radial Play
Mozart: Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for violin, viola and orchestra
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra


Some of us learned the ins and outs of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra listening repeatedly to Fritz Reiner’s iconic recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the brashness and hard edges of Michael Tilson Thomas’ interpretation with the San Francisco Symphony underlined just how distinctly different a familiar work can become. Rather than Reiner’s softer approach, it was refreshing to encounter Thomas revealing the composer’s dissonances.

Not that the whole thing bristled with pungency. There were plenty of moments when the fullness of the string sound and the fluttering of the woodwinds created moments of consummate beauty, especially in the nocturnal fourth movement. But  members of the orchestra didn’t blink at Bartók’s cluster chords, minor-second and major-seventh harmonies, and angular melodic turns either. They hardened their sound in contrast to the more conventionally symphonic passages.

Intended or not, a different sense of rhythm from the usual jagged Hungarian approach was also evident—almost like Bartók filtered through Gershwin. It was easiest to hear in principal percussionist Jacob Nissly’s side drum (a snare drum sans snares), which opened, closed, and set the rhythmic tone for the second movement “Game of Pairs.” Playing with one stick, Nissly infused the patterns with a jazzy touch, which carried over into all the rhythmic byplay that runs through the scherzo-like movement.

Bartók’s idea in 1943 was to create a sort of sequential concerto for the Boston Symphony by featuring one principal player in the orchestra after another, even whole sections, rather than one soloist continuously. Each turn was something to savor, especially the second-movement “pairs.” Bassoonists Stephen Paulsen and Rob Weir shaped the melodic and rhythmic twists to give the movement a rollicking start. Especially intriguing were the muted trumpets (Mark Inouye and Mark Grisez) harmonizing in pungent major seconds, and byplay between principal flute Tim Day and piccolo Catherine Payne.

In the finale, after the string section unfurled the rapid-fare perpetual-motion opening measures, the brass stole the show with pinpoint counterpoint in the development and a majestic chorale to top things off. All this created a distinctly American interpretation of a Hungarian composer’s music. I like to think it would have made him smile and nod (in time to the beat, perhaps). Combine this approach with vivid playing by every soloist along the way, and the piece spun dizzyingly into an invigorating 35 minutes.

In the first half, the featured piece extended the idea of spotlighting soloists from within the ensemble. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and principal viola Jonathan Vinocour lavished grace and vivid phrasing on the solo roles in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat. Customarily, the 18th-entry form relegates the orchestra to an accompaniment rather than an active participant, as in later concertos, but Mozart could not settle for that. Even though he honors the form by withholding the main themes for the soloists, the orchestra begins with a long and remarkably expressive introduction that seems like a statement of themes but just suggests things to come.

Once Barantschik and Vinocour got rolling, they brought plenty of tonal contrast and lively rhythmic underpinning. Mozart’s violin lines lie mostly above the staff, while the viola aims toward the low end for a richer sound, and the two soloists reveled in those differences. The orchestra, meanwhile, kept the whole thing on pace.

Composer Samuel Adams wrote Radial Play as a short concert opener. The “radial” part refers to a focus on an F-sharp, around which the rest of the music circles. The “play” involves directing many of the instrumentalists to make their instruments sound different than expected. Harps take the lead by setting the rhythmic pulse, which occasionally slips sideways. Brass players huff air through their horns instead of creating a pitch. String players scratch away tonelessly at times. Woodwinds live in the high and low extremes of their ranges. Although the tonal palette delves into dissonance, it never makes one wince. Lightweight but diverting, it was a reasonably pleasant way to spend six minutes while settling in.

Harvey Steiman

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