Where do you draw the line with folk music? When cultures intersect and cross-pollinate, is it possible to find the one authentic seed, the single point of originality? Or, mixing metaphors, is it like cutting open an onion, where the peelings themselves are what you’re looking for, since there is no core?
On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and conductor Robert Spano explored several facets of this question, in another tightly constructed program (Spano’s great specialty) where the ideas resonated within and among works and the sequence of music played delightful games in the listener’s ear.
Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 2 is based on Gypsy songs he collected in his native Hungary in the 1840s. With the glee of a scientist making a discovery in the lab, the composer concluded that the Gypsies, or Roma as they call themselves, were the originators of Hungarian folk music. Spano’s interpretation was earthy and elegant, but it was hard to tell whether he was treating this music as ironic, post-Bugs Bunny pops kitsch or as dead-serious music by a genius innovator of the mid-19th century. In the orchestra’s polished reading, they straddled both worlds, delightfully. (Photos by Jeff Roffman.)
Bela Bartok, another Hungarian searching for that mythical, identity-defining core, helped overturn Liszt’s hypothesis, which became its own controversy and is still re-interpreted by scholars in the context of the overheated nationalism infecting Europe before World War I. One composer says the Roma are the creators of Hungarian music; the other says they merely copied and popularized it.
Bartok’s Viola Concerto, a handsome, emotional masterpiece, was still in manuscript form at his death in 1945. It was completed and premiered in 1949; various editions are in print, none perfectly satisfying, and performers have been known to create their own hybrid. As ASO principal violist Reid Harris asked in a program note: “What would the concerto have sounded like, finished by Bartok? Like other ‘partially completed’ works of the great masters — the Mozart Requiem, Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, Berg’s opera ‘Lulu’ — we can never know.”
From the orchestra — fresh from their stunning performances of Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” in Atlanta and New York — the Viola Concerto on Thursday night received deluxe treatment, ideally balanced and melancholy and insightful. As the viola soloist, Harris didn’t inspire much confidence. With his underpowered tone and wavery sense of intonation, he keeps the listener on edge — not from emotional tension in the music but in fear he’ll screw up. Yet at his best, in the lyrical slow section, Harris made a strong case for the concerto’s aching profundity.
After intermission came music by another composer thick in the Hungarian/Gypsy sound world. Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, in four movements, lasts almost an hour. When the work was new, in the 1880s, the joke was that it’s a “symphony with piano.” But that really is how Spano conducted it. Looking like old Dr. Klemperer with a scowl of concentration and horn-rimmed spectacles, Spano managed to build the orchestra’s power, finding richness where you’d expect it but also a certain subtlety — a firm lightness — that seems like a relatively recent addition to the conductor’s vocabulary. The orchestra sounded great.
Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman plays with enough brawn to match the orchestra at its most imposing. A regular guest in Symphony Hall, he’s sometimes cast in repertoire for which he’s not ideally suited, such as bright-key Mozart. The Brahms suited him, and his rapport with conductor and orchestra sparked many luminous moments. After the opening movement, a deep exploration, some in the audience applauded. Bronfman smiled, stood and took a solo bow — a charming gesture. Overall, they gave a highly satisfying performance.
The evening opened with another world-premiere fanfare, one of 10 to be heard this season, commissioned by the ASO to celebrate Spano’s decade as music director. The season-opening concert, in September, included a festive, pitch- and mood-perfect fanfare by Chris Theofanidis. Surprisingly, it’s been a tough act to follow.
Last night the premiere belonged to another “Atlanta School” composer, the Boston-based Michael Gandolfi. His “Pageant,” loaded with stock gestures, lasted four minutes and delivered the requisite buoyancy and verve, with churning strings, magic-sparkle percussion and a few lovely themes. There was also a Gypsy-style folk dance embedded in the middle, a nifty foreshadowing of the repertoire that followed. Although the ASO is thoroughly versed in Gandolfi’s language, and the score is clearly laid out, the performance sounded a little ragged — a wrinkle that should be ironed out for the performances tonight and Saturday.