Orchestra presents popular works by Dvořák and Bartók
By Peter Alexander
The Boulder Philharmonic will conclude its season Saturday (April 24) with “Legendary Virtuosity,” a concert featuring two of the most popular pieces in the orchestra repertoire—coincidentally, both written in the United States.
Both are concertos that call on the virtuosity of the performers, although only one is written for a soloist with orchestra. Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in New York in 1894, near the end of his tenure at the National Conservatory of Music. And almost 50 years later, Bartók, a refugee from a European war and working at a retreat in upstate New York, had the idea of featuring the entire orchestra in his Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1943.
The concert, at 7:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium, will open with the atmospheric Enchanted Lake of Russian composer Anatoly Liadov. The Boulder Phil’s music director Michael Butterman will conduct, and cellist Zuill Bailey will be the soloist for Dvořák. Tickets are available from the Boulder Phil.
Dvořák taught at the National Conservatory during parts of three years, 1892–94. In the spring of 1894 he heard a new cello concerto by one of his colleagues at the conservatory, the Irish-American cellist and composer, Victor Herbert. Best known for his operettas, including Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland, Herbert was an accomplished cellist who had led the cello section at the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony at Carnegie Hall the year before.
Inspired by Herbert’s concerto, and later touched by the death of his sister-in-law—by legend the one true love of his life—Dvořák wrote a work of broad and deep emotional reach. It has remained one of the most beloved works in the repertoire.
“This is a piece that gets deeper as one gets older,” Bailey says. “It is never a piece that I tire of. In fact, I’m always amazed at the goosebumps that happen before my entrance. This has never failed me.
“This is why the orchestras, and audiences, so adore this concerto. Every single time it’s another journey.”
Butterman speaks of the score’s melodic richness as part of its appeal. “Like much of Dvorak’s music it has an abundance of melodic elements that just keep coming at you, one after another,” he says. “He never seemed to run dry.”
Bailey believes Dvořák not only wrote a great concerto for the cello, he changed the very nature of the concerto. “He changed the landscape of how things were done,” he says. “This is a symphony with a cello part—a very heroic cello part.”
Bailey is pleased to be making his first Boulder concerto appearance with Butterman and the Phil. “I am thrilled to be working with maestro Butterman,” he says. “I think he is one of the great collaborators out there. Every time I’ve worked with him it’s been an absolute pleasure, and it’s really terrific that we get to share the Dvořák (Concerto).”
Butterman reciprocates the compliment. “I’m delighted to have Bailey come into Boulder,” he says. “He’s a wonderful artist, a very intense and charismatic performer.”
If the name Bartók suggests difficult modern music, you may not know The Concerto for Orchestra. Written in the last years of Bartók’s life, it is a deliberately accessible piece that at times is downright comical. At one point the orchestra breaks into musical laughter at an interruption by a borrowed melody, and the second movement makes great fun of presenting each of the woodwind instrument pairs matched at different intervals.
“A lot of people may see the name Bartók and think about music that is written in some language that they find foreign sounding,” Butterman says. “But this is a piece that continues to be one of the most popular 20th-century works in the orchestral canon—for good reason.
“It was chosen as kind of bookend to our season opener, Scheherazade, a piece that featured our new concertmaster. (The Concerto for Orchestra) doesn’t put the spotlight on any one person, but on the orchestra as a whole, and particularly the wind section. The solo passages allow you to hear the virtuosity of the orchestra, and the different timbres that make up its character. This is a piece that is incredibly engaging rhythmically and melodically.”
Orchestra players typically relish the chance to play The Concerto for Orchestra. “It’s fun to play, but you’ve got to concentrate like mad,” Butterman says. “There’s a lot of little things that can trip you up, rhythmically in particular, but it works out so well.”
The Enchanted Lake is one of the few works left by a very talented composer who was, Butterman says, “an underperforming worker. This is a composer who famously said, ‘Naw, I don’t think I want to do that Firebird piece—there’s this kid Stravinsky, I’m sure he’ll do it for you.’”
Whether or not he really passed on composing The Firebird, Liadov created a quiet masterpiece in The Enchanted Lake, which remains one of the most performed short orchestral tone poems in the repertoire. “It’s a piece that sets a mood and does it very effectively and very beautifully,” Butterman says. “It’s gorgeous.
“The story was that he went down to this lake and just stood there for half an hour or so, watching the whole expanse of things. Essentially nothing happened, so he went home and wrote a piece about it (where) he’s trying to create an atmosphere of absolute placidity and calm and stillness. I think that is its own profundity and depth, if you’re able to capture that sense of stasis and calm.
“This is a beautiful way to begin a concert, because you’ve just come in from parking and hoofing it up the hill, and maybe you just need a moment to settle in. I think this piece allows you to get those beta brain waves flowing.”
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The Enchanted Lake by Anatoly Liadov
Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvořák
Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25
Musical Hike. Enchanted Lakes: Music and Pond Ecology
With naturalist Dave Sutherland
5:30–8 p.m., Tuesday, April 21, Sawhill Ponds
Café Phil open rehearsal
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 22, The Diary Center
Michael Butterman presents 2015-2016 season.
6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, Macky Auditorium (free to concert ticket holders)