Monday, June 03, 2013
Eastern Promises at the SF Symphony
Last week's concerts at the San Francisco Symphony were infused by Eastern Europe, with Dvorak's Cello Concerto, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, and Bartok's Suite from The Wooden Prince being conducted by the Slovakian born conductor Juraj Valcuha (above left). The French cellist Gautier Capucon above right was the soloist in the Dvorak.
Though the cello concerto is an overplayed staple of classical radio stations, this may be the first time I have ever heard the piece live, and it was impressively beautiful, even in a performance that felt a bit amped up by both soloist and orchestra. In fact, it left my concert companion James Parr slightly overwhelmed.
The young conductor seemed more suited for 20th century music, and the orchestra gave the best performance of Kodaly's 1933 Dances of Galanta that I have ever heard. The fifteen-minute suite of five Hungarian Gypsy tunes is one of the most perfect pieces of folk music translated into classical concert forms ever written. It's tricky to play well, though, because the rhythms are slightly off beat and most American orchestras smooth out the strangeness. Valcuha and the orchestra did a marvelous job accenting the odd rhythms instead, and it was a triumph.
The suite from Bartok's 1917 ballet The Wooden Prince is more of a gorgeous mess, with snatches of Wagner, Ravel and Stravinsky popping up here and there. The performance on Friday evening was completely absorbing, particularly in the final half where Bartok lets loose on eccentric folk dance rhythms. Somebody should write an opera or make a movie about the period where Kodaly and Bartok explored obscure, tucked away villages in Hungary during World War One. As ethnomusical historians, composers, and good friends, they recorded dozens of villages' individual music repertory before those microcultures disappeared.