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‘Bach to Bartók’ an RPO journey worth taking

David Raymond, CITY Newspaper. Click here for the original article.

Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg – great composers but only occasional visitors to Kodak Hall at best — finally made it on the same Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra program last night. The evening also included a 20th-century standard, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

These composers are not the most popular kids in the classical music sandbox. In fact, they seem to be a foursome many concertgoers love to hate – so this lineup was ambitious and a bit audacious of music director Ward Stare. Along with the RPO and violin soloist Tessa Lark, Stare took a deep dive into these 20th-century classics, showing all of this music to be wonderfully communicative.

Bach did in fact start the journey, with the late-Baroque logic of the second Ricercar from his “Musical Offering,” magically transferred to a cool, spacey sound world by Anton Webern. This fascinating composer’s signature is a pointillist treatment of melodic lines, with themes presented only three or four notes at a time, played by one instrument at a time. If that sounds formless, the effect is anything but: The constantly changing instrumental colors dovetail into a coherent whole that Bach would surely have found fascinating.
I’m sure that Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra still sound like “crazy modern music” to most people. To me, listening 110 years after its premiere, it’s definitely still atonal and not melodic, but it’s also vital and voluptuous (in fact, it received its RPO premiere last night).

If Schoenberg’s fantastically detailed orchestration and overheated emotions recall any predecessor, it’s Mahler. As a devotee and convincing interpreter of Mahler, Ward Stare’s passionate reading made the connection between these two composers very clear.

The pieces cover a huge emotional range and call for a large orchestra, but the mass of instruments is often broken up into small, unexpected combinations and solo lines. The third piece, “Chord Colors,” is in fact, nothing but that: a few chords presented in a kaleidoscope of timbres.

Here and there, the musicians approached Webern and Schoenberg’s exposed writing hesitantly, but there was plenty of beautiful solo and ensemble playing to be heard along the way. And the full-orchestra outbursts in the first and fourth pieces were downright startling; nobody presented “catastrophe” like Schoenberg. Stare had the long view of each piece, and gave a clear and compelling reading of still-complicated music.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto is one work I have long hoped to hear on an RPO program; it has been accepted as a masterpiece since the day of its premiere in 1936, but the orchestra hasn’t programmed it since 1981. I’d never heard it live at all, and what a powerful piece of music it is. Berg was of course the composer of the operas “Wozzeck” and “Lulu,” and for all the formal complications of his music, a masterful musical dramatist.

Berg’s last completed work (he never heard it performed) is “in memory of an angel” — a memorial for a beautiful and beloved young woman, Manon Gropius (the daughter of Mahler’s widow Alma and her second husband). It’s also Berg’s own premonition of death and a review of his life, combining Baroque and atonal musical procedures. That is a very simplified version of the story behind this concerto, which is worth reading in detail.

Bach comes in here as well, in the final movement, when Berg turns the last four notes of the 12-tone row that is the basic DNA for the concerto into the first four notes of a Lutheran chorale tune. “Es ist genug” (“It is enough” – an acceptance and welcoming of death), is heard here in Bach’s haunting, surprisingly chromatic arrangement. Those four notes lead to a transcendent, and thoroughly tonal ending: death and transfiguration.

I’d never heard violinist Tessa Lark either, but she, Ward Stare, and this concerto all seem made for each other. She tossed off its fearsome technical demands with aplomb, unerringly finding the emotion behind the notes, and Stare and the orchestra were with her every step of the way. This music was compelling in every measure. The overwhelming climax of the second movement was magnificent here.

Lark also perfectly complemented the “back to Bach” thread of the evening with her solo encore: a refined elevated reading of the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata.

After this marvelously moody first half, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra came off almost as a big, playful puppy. Like the Berg Concerto, it is a vast canvas by a composer who saw his mortality in the near future; the Concerto for Orchestra has an elegiac slow movement, but instead of Berg’s tragic climax and slow fadeout, Bartók mostly offers geniality, wit, and virtuosity.

Of all the pieces on this program it is definitely the most frequently performed and acclaimed, but its energy and orchestral brilliance never seem to fade. Stare and the orchestra really cut loose for this and put on an exciting show, from elegantly turned woodwind solos and duets to passionate, massed-strings sound.

In his spoken introduction to the Schoenberg and Berg works, Ward Stare commented, “This is probably my favorite of this season’s programs.” Based on last night’s concert, it’s definitely mine.