Hungarian showstoppers took center stage at Disney Hall last night, in the second performance of the last concert program the LA Philharmonic is presenting in their 2015–16 season. The evening opened with Kodály Zoltán’s charming Dances of Galánta from 1933. Written on commission for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances draw on Hungarian folk tunes collected from the area around the town of Galánta (which is now located in Slovakia, not Hungary), where Kodály’s father worked for many years as a station–master. An elegant work that combines rustic vigor with neoclassical grace, Dances of Galánta falls into two sections: a plaintive, lyrical introduction lush with delicate woodwind solos, and a breakneck dance that leaps and tumbles with endless agility. The Philharmonic covered this territory with supreme élan, making its numerous virtuosic pyrotechnics seem transparently effortless.
Underappreciated instruments tend to stick together, so as a bassoonist, I’ve always had a soft spot for works for solo viola. I felt quite vindicated in that stance with the next work on the program, Bartók Béla’s viola concerto, completed posthumously from 1945–49 by Tibor Serly, the solo part here covered by the LA Philharmonic’s principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Following a similar pattern to many of Bartók’s later works, the viola concerto begins mired in snarling dissonances and progresses over the course of its twenty–minute span through a transcendent hymn–like space to a rousing finale blazing with life–affirming energy. The scoring is thin, almost ghostly at times, but this only makes the tutti passages even more thrilling when they arrive. I have been impressed with Dennis’s playing on numerous previous occasions at the Phil — her sinuous interpretation of the solo in the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stands out in particular in my memory — but last night outclassed them all. Dennis played like a woman possessed, swaying and dancing with the music, at several points all but leaping into the air with the intensity of her playing. Bartók’s craggy chromatic lines can sometimes sound stagnant in less capable hands, but Dennis sculpted each of them into a gripping utterance, by turns lashing out, sulking away, and bursting forth with manic exuberance. Summoned repeatedly back to the stage by roaring applause, Dennis played an improvisatory paraphrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore — it may have seemed an incongruous fit for the rest of the program, but given Gershwin’s interest in European modernism, I thought it was subtly, and cleverly, fitting. If you ever get the chance to see her live, take it.
Next, after the intermission, came Apparitions (1959), Ligeti György’s breakthrough work of midcentury European Modernism. If the Bartók was sparse, the Ligeti was almost not there at all — the piece is built from scraps of sound of almost vanishing quietude. The strings whisper a twisting line of microtones, the winds hold a pungent chord, silence punctuates everything. Even in the livelier second movement, which includes moments of loudness indeed, there’s still a sense of breathlessness, a sense that the music is only just barely clinging together, a hair’s breadth from disintegrating into nothing. For all this, though, there’s a profound feeling of cheeky joy just beneath the music’s surface. This is something of a signature in Ligeti’s works; even at his most severe and strident, I always have the feeling that he’s simply overjoyed to be able to play with such a malleable thing of endless possibilities as musical sound. Stuffy purists might have turned up their noses at the quiet chuckles that ran through the audience at numerous points during its unfolding, but I think they had the right idea.
Ghostly textures were cast aside in the finale, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1919/24). The story of the original ballet, with its blatant orientalism and undercurrent of sexism, hasn’t aged well, but the concert suite has held up somewhat better, even if the trombones at the Chinese Man’s entrance are still uncomfortably pentatonic. Unlike most of the rest of the program, this is a dense score, bristling with multi-layered textures and aggressive discords, summoning up a disintegrating world on the brink of collapse. (The scandalous première may have taken place in 1926, but the bulk of the composition was done in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, a time when artists of all stripes were reeling from the psychic shock of the blood–drenched pointless horror of that conflict and still grappling with what it meant to make art in its wake.) With shrill woodwinds imitating car horns and jittery percussion marking an unconscious body being tossed down a flight of stairs, this is not a comforting score, and the Phil brought it to life with a grim brutality that matched the ballet scenario’s grime. Shortly after beginning the work, Bartók opined that the score “[would] be hellish music”; nearly a century on, the demons have not lost any of their power.