Many years ago, I asked a conductor a question—a standard question: “Do you feel an obligation to program new music?” He said yes, though somewhat hesitantly. And then he said, “Frankly, I think we should program music of the past that is never or seldom played, and ought to be known. We ought to rescue music whose light is under a bushel.”
I thought of him last night, as I sat down to a concert of the New York Philharmonic. The concert began with a concerto for orchestra by a famous Hungarian composer. I am not talking about Bartók’s, written in 1943. I’m talking about Kodály’s, written in 1940. And the concert ended with the Symphony No. 1 of Bohuslav Martinů, written in 1942. (Martinů, a Czech, lived from 1890 to 1959.) Neither of these works had ever been played by the Philharmonic.
On the podium last night was a guest: Jakub Hrůša, a Czech born in 1981. He is the chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, in Germany. From Wikipedia comes this interesting bit of information: “The orchestra was formed in 1946 mainly from German musicians expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII, who had previously been members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague.”
So, the Kodály Concerto for Orchestra. It is a virtuosic piece, requiring virtuosic conducting and virtuosic playing. It received such conducting and such playing. (There were smudges in the orchestra here and there, but these were of little import.) In the main, the piece is gay, festive. A pleasure to hear, and, it seems, to play.
Like any other concerto for orchestra, the piece highlights many “first-deskmen,” as we used to call principal players, in the bad old days. I will mention just two. Cynthia Phelps handled the viola part with relish and beauty. People like to mock viola players (for reasons we could get into). But hardly any instrument can beat it for beauty of sound. Mindy Kaufman handled the piccolo, piping with spirit and expertise.
Piccolo players cannot live by The Stars and Stripes Forever alone.
Following the concerto—the concerto for orchestra—there was another concerto: for piano and orchestra. It was Liszt’s No. 1, in E flat. The soloist was Yuja Wang—who was on. Really on. Yuja at her most dazzling. She played with extraordinary accuracy, and all the flair you could want. Her passagework was so smooth—so limpid, so lacy—it practically defied belief. Do her arms and hands not have bones and nerves? Anything to impede them? Does a piano not have hammers, moving up and down? When she wanted to be lacy, she was lacy, yes. But when octaves or chords needed thunder, she did not stint on the thunder.
I believe Liszt would have grinned from ear to ear.
The clarinetist, Pascual Martínez Forteza, joined Wang for a nice duet or two. So, of course, did the triangle player: Christopher S. Lamb. This concerto features one of the most famous triangle parts in all of music. (You might say, and truly, that this is not a rich field.)
All in all, Yuja Wang and her friends—including Maestro Hrůša and Franz Liszt—provided a glorious romp.
She would play an encore, and I figured it would be Liszt, and I figured it would be a song transcription of his: his transcription of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (which Schubert penned when he was but seventeen). This is one of Wang’s regular encores. And that is what she played.
She can play it better—with the melody singing out more. She was oddly mousy in the piece last night. Also, she can shape the piece more compellingly. But, listen, it was good enough.
A couple of footnotes. During the Liszt, a string broke—a piano string. This caused consternation, briefly, but Wang et al. carried on, without incident.
Also, fashionistas will want to know what the pianist was wearing: a slinky shoulderless dress, yellow; high, high—very high—heels, white; and oversize white-framed sunglasses. She looked marvelous, needless to say.
After intermission, that Martinů Symphony No. 1. By the way, Jakub Hrůša, his bio tells us, is the president of the International Martinů Circle. The conductor certainly did well by the composer in this symphony.
It is a colorful, intelligent, enjoyable symphony. It is in four movements, the first of which is rather Impressionistic. You hear washes of orchestral sound. There is a hint of jazz, or jazziness, I believe. (I confess that, as an American, I’m always hearing jazz, including in unlikely spots.) The second movement, a scherzo, is a real winner. It is bouncy, angular, jazzy (ahem). A ball.
Then comes the slow movement, Largo. There was some beautiful playing by the Philharmonic’s low strings in this music. The movement as a whole has much beauty. There is also an inexorability to it—a somber inexorability. I thought of another largo, from another symphony: Shostakovich’s Fifth, written about five years before Martinů’s No. 1. I am not suggesting that Martinů did any borrowing. I’m not even suggesting influence. I’m saying, only, that I was put in mind of the Shostakovich.
Martinů’s finale? It is mainly festive, celebratory, and it makes a fitting, uplifting finish.
I think I can speak for most of the audience: it was good, very good, to make the acquaintance of Martinů’s Symphony No. 1. What else is out there? What other music has its light hidden under a bushel? Well, for starters, Martinů wrote five more symphonies . . .