In April 1944, composer and folklorist Bela Bartok was in Asheville, North Carolina, convalescing from the leukemia that would kill him 18 months later. Outside his window he heard the song of the eastern towhee, which seemed to sing “drink your tee-e-e-e” — first an eight note (“drink”), then another a fifth lower in pitch (“your”), then back up a fifth for a slowly repeating staccato (“tee-e-e-e”).
“The birds have become drunk with the spring,” Bartok wrote to his son, “and are putting on concerts the likes of which I’ve never heard.” The composer incorporated the “drink your tee-e-e-e” motif, as well as songs of the wood thrush and hermit thrush, into his Third Piano Concerto, which the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and pianist Peter Serkin performed Thursday and will return to tonight in Symphony Hall.
From Serkin and conductor Roberto Abbado, the slow middle movement, with its central “in the forest” section, was a miracle of verdant lyricism. The ASO has been surveying the outskirts of the Hungarian composer’s oeuvre this season, with a fiery “Miraculous Mandarin” in October and the unfinished Viola Concerto in January. Serkin’s chiseled clean sound, unfussy manner and, above all, lucid insights into the score aligned the concerto with the modern aesthetic, and his interpretation seemed stripped to the essentials, at once simple and profound.
Serkin, a thinking man’s pianist, isn’t what anyone would describe as a flashy player. So in the finale of the Bartok, it was unexpected to see him clench his fists and shake them for an instant after a rich phrase capped by an especially intense chord — as if he’d delivered a powerful statement on behalf of the composer and was overcome by the emotional power of the moment. Those little fist rattles somehow embodied what the music felt like. Overall, with Abbado and the ASO as full partners, it was a beautiful, very moving performance.
The evening opened with a world premiere, Michael Kurth’s “May Cause Dizziness.” A double bass player in the ASO for most of his adult life, Kurth is belatedly finding his voice as a composer. He has written several compelling pieces of chamber music, and based on the interesting content and personal style of his string quartet, ASO Music Director Robert Spano invited him to compose a celebratory fanfare. It’s one of 10 across the 2010-11 season to mark Spano’s decade with the orchestra.
“May Cause Dizziness” is Kurth’s first piece for full orchestra. (You can read a bit about the composer and the music here.) While his attitude and voice are distinctive, Kurth’s compositional chops show that he’s still learning his craft. The opening set the mood, where a piccolo toots a playful rhythm, joined by the flute and then others, with a rock-steady beat and a youthful and optimistic energy. A trumpet gets a solo turn, which catches the ear, but underneath is a thicket of indiscernible sound. There are plenty of memorable, smile-inducing licks, a good arc from beginning to end, and a frothy big finish. It’s imaginative, slight, messy and met the basic goals of a four-minute fanfare. It was fun to hear.
Kurth listened to his premiere seated in the audience, and when he rushed to the stage to take his bows, his colleagues gave him as much applause and good cheer as everyone else in the almost-full concert hall.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 in D Major was the first symphony the Austrian composed, late in life, for London audiences, and like most late Haydn, it’s a masterpiece of the flamboyantly subtle and the subversively cheerful. Abbado’s take on the opening movement, thoroughly pleasant, balanced the muscular and the elegant. In the quirky Largo cantabile, he highlighted the toy shop (or music box) qualities, as if accompanying a pirouetting doll. The loud, interrupting belch from the bassoon, near the Largo’s end, seems the sort of gag that is meant to be funny but is also, one step removed, a commentary on what passes for funny. There’s no doubt that Haydn was intending to give his audience (and himself) pleasure at a grade-school level of sophistication. Abbado moved the minuet along at what felt like actually danceable rhythms. And he got the orchestra to play very quietly in the finale, which is always startling to hear from this orchestra in this loud hall.
The conductor showed his experience in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, in a masterful reading. The ASO played with grit and focus and often a dash of euphoria. Abbado never rushed toward the climaxes, instead holding back a little to give passages more weight. But what is increasingly clear is that the orchestra is suddenly on a rapid rise in communication, expression and artistic quality. It is playing together at a level I haven’t previously heard in 10 years of listening. Even two years ago, the ASO could not — did not — perform this work this convincingly.