CEDAR FALLS -- A hint of paprika wafted through the Great Hall of the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on May 12, as the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra, led by Artistic Director Jason Weinberger, gave us a program entitled “The Hungarian Project.” The concert was preceded by a talk given by Weinberger, who is partially of Hungarian extraction.
In actuality, the program was not quite complete as planned. The intended violin soloist, Hungarian László Horváth, planning to perform the Rhapsody for Violin, No. 1, by Béla Bartók, was beset by visa problems and was unable to appear. The concert went on with modified order and a substituted piece.
One of the myths of music is that only a native composer can truly recreate the flavor of his nationality’s music. Quite the opposite is true, and the literature is full of examples of “outsiders” recreating music of a particular region that is as good or better than any native. Witness for example the stirring "Espanha" of French composer Emmanuel Chabrier, the enchanting "Capriccio Italienne" of the Russian Tchaikowsky, or my favorite, the strikingly evocative "Ports of Call" of Frenchman Jacques Ibert, featuring Italy and Sicily, Tunisia, and Valencia in Spain.
"The Hungarian Dances" of the German Johannes Brahms falls into this category, though the dances are refined by the styles of Western European classicism holding sway in Vienna, Brahms’ adopted city. The dances are probably the composer’s most “popular” works, being originally written for piano four hands and becoming a continental success. Brahms’ orchestrations proved equally popular, especially Dance No. 5, which is somewhat overplayed.
Weinberger chose a set of three — Dances 10, 3 and 1, in that order. These scores are still exciting works with their tempo changes and rousing string passages, and although lacking in the number of string players to give the music its full amount of verve, the W/CFSO’s string sections handled the difficulties with élan.
There followed the scintillating Divertimento (Sz. 113) of Béla Bartók. Hungary’s most famous composer, Bartók built most of his writing on the vast store of folk music hanging ripe for the picking throughout Hungary’s plains and forests. He travelled the country for years recording these treasures on primitive equipment, in a stupendous feat of scholarship and patriotism.
The "Divertimento" was composed in Switzerland, on commission, and is one of Bartók’s last works before he was driven by WWII to the U.S.. It is written for string orchestra, and is rather neo-classical in structure, also exhibiting aspects of the Baroque concerto-grosso, with its contrasts between small and large groupings. The work is in three movements. The first has been described as a waltz with Roma (gypsy) influences. Melodic lines move between a quartet (the concertino) made up of the principal 1st and 2nd violins, viola and cello; and the large group, or ripieno. In spite of its traditional form, the melodic material is primarily that of modal (using alternate scales) Hungarian folk.
The second movement is an adagio, dark and intense, and offered to me the most moving content.
The final allegro is more dance-like, in a Hungarian way, and offers much contrast between large and small groups. It has been compared to some of the composer’s later string quartet writing — Bartók wrote six quartets that are the bedrock of contemporary string quartet literature. It would be instructive to compare the divertimento and the quartets.
This is difficult and demanding music, both for performances and audiences. The strings rose to the occasion, with admirable precision, and the audience absorbed the work’s difficulties and applauded warmly.
After intermission, Weinberger gave us a short preview of next year’s programming. We then heard the substitute piece of the evening — a middle movement from "The American Suite," by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák. Originally written for piano in New York City in 1894 on the occasion of Dvoráks’ visit to America, the composer later scored the five movements of the work for orchestra.
To my mind, unfamiliar with the suite, this movement could not compete with the intensity and intriguing construction of the Bartók which preceded it nor the Kodály that followed. Perhaps hearing it in context of the whole will add to the stature of its admittedly pleasant nature.
The evening finished with the most popular piece of Hungary’s second-most famous composer, Zoltán Kodály (pronounced KOH-die). The work is the stirring "Dances of Galánta" (actually pronounced GOH-lan-toh—and while we’re at it, last names in Hungarian are spoken first, so in Hungary it’s actually Bartók Béla and Kodály Zoltan).
Galánta is a small town, originally in Hungary, now in Slovakia. Kodály spent much of his youth in Galánta, and absorbed deeply its rich folk traditions — he too became a respected musicologist. "Dances of Galánta" contains five movements, riddled with the excitement of Gypsy dances. More specifically, it relates to the verbunkos (VAIR-bun-kosh) style of dance and singing, with a fascinating history: centuries ago, military recruiting teams, with a core of talented verbunkos dancers and musicians, scoured the Hungarian hinterlands prowling after military recruits. In country taverns, they plied the local young men with wine, song and dance throughout the evening, and morning found the unfortunate men with a hangover and a signed and sealed military contract.
This music may be the closest to the real thing that one will find in Hungarian classical literature — its five movements collectively move from slow to fast, as do the majority of Hungarian dances, and they drink deeply of the modal influences of the country.
Notable solo work came from the orchestra’s second clarinetist, Daniel Friberg, subbing this evening as principal, who handled with virtuosity the cadenza-like solos in imitation of the táragató, a clarinet-like instrument prominent in Hungarian folk playing.
Also notable was a blazing horn call by Tina Su, near the opening. But the piece, and really the evening, belonged to the strings — showing off excellent passagework and precision throughout, highlighted by some admirable solo work by concertmistress Anita Tucker. One could almost hear the slap of hand on the high black leather boots of the dancers — a feature of this music, still danced today.
Should you be reading this and considering attending some of next season’s concerts, I urge you to do so. The area’s finest classical musicians, exciting repertoire, an acoustically marvelous hall, and relatively low ticket prices---what is there to lose?
Thanks are due to our sponsors, who made Saturday evening’s concert possible: Roger and Joanne Lane, Christopher Martin and Bettina Fabos (Bettina allowed some of her collection of Hungarian costuming to be exhibited), Jeffrey and Fanya Weinberger, The Gallagher Family Foundation, ACES Managed IT Services, The Courier, and as always, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Iowa Arts Council, and the McElroy Trust.
The symphony next appears on Saturday, Sept. 29 in Gallagher Bluedorn for the gala season opener.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the University of Northern Iowa School of Music and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.