The main Monday night concert at the Bach Festival focusses on Concertmaster (and conductor for the evening), Peter Hanson, who with the Bach Festival Orchestra string sections chose a few real gems from this repertoire to share. They began with Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113. We immediately noticed violins and violas were standing rather than sitting in chairs as is traditional. With the opening measures, it was apparent this was an inspired choice, for the musicians were able to use their whole bodies in expressing the syncopated, waltz-like dance rhythms with interesting accents in the first movement. Led by Hanson, the added visual of strings moving to the music aided in transmitting their musical experience of the work more directly to the audience. Although Bartok’s modernistic harmonies are present, the work does have a connection to the baroque. Bartok himself is quoted in the program notes as thinking of a Concerto Grosso when writing it. How he uses a group of soloists against the orchestral backdrop is inspired from this type of composition.
In his introduction, Mr. Hanson told the audience the piece was written in 1939 at the precipice of World War II, and that in the 2nd movement you can really sense the terror of this impending horror, especially with an extended crescendo that is intensely dramatic. He wasn’t kidding. It is a slow, dark dirge that includes dissonant, haunting sounds of foreboding. The crescendo to which the Concertmaster referred was rendered in terrifying glory by the ensemble–It was truly scary.
The final movement is a dance-like rondo where the folk song-like melodies for which Bartok is known are more apparent. It includes a wonderful fugue with different sections taking the theme and was marked by incisive solos from Mr. Hanson.
The audience erupted at its conclusion with many “woops” and whistles. In fact, there seemed to be more youthful enthusiasm from this Bach Festival audience than I had experienced before. In fact, this concert served as part of an interesting outreach campaign put on by the Festival called “Triple Play Mondays.” The event was promoted to younger people in their twenties and thirties who may not be as familiar with classical music — so they made it a party. For $25 participants could attend a pre-concert party in the upper courtyard including electronic DJ music in the background with beer and appetizers, attend the main concert, and then go to a post-concert after-party with wine and cheese. Pretty good deal, I would say and a hopefully successful way to get more of the younger generation to enjoy the riches of the music we love. It was certainly apparent that less experienced classical music concert-goers were in the audience, with applause occuring in between every movement of every work performed. This was only slightly disturbing after the hauntingly profound 2nd movement of the Bartok.
The first half concluded with a magnificently complex 6-part Bach fugue from A Musical Offering, BWV. 1079. The different sections of the orchestra wonderfully balanced their respective lines of the fugue, each being clear, but creating overlapping whole of counterpoint that was satisfying.
The second half of the program was devoted the great Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22, perhaps Dvorak’s first masterwork. Containing five movements, it is full of lush, romantic melodies and their wonderful interplay between sections of the ensemble. It is so creatively rich, there is really no weak point or lull in the entire composition — it never ceases delivering gifts of musical inspiration. The Festival Strings gave a strong, expressive, musical performance, using their whole bodies to manifest the romanticism of the work. It, again, aided in immersing the audience into the music. The only slightly frustrating issue was that the acoustics of Sunset Center have always been a bit dry and the string ensemble’s sound did have a tendency to thin out in the hall.
With the Czech Antonin Dvorak, we certainly got the “Bohemia” part of this year’s festival theme, “Bach, Bohemia, and Beyond.” For an encore, Mr. Hanson, took this inspiration a bit literally and had the musicians perform his own transcription of perhaps the most famous musical work associated with Bohemia—Bohemian Rhapsody by the not very geographically Bohemian, English rock group, Queen. I’m sure it was also a nod to the many younger members of the audience (although when did this song come out anyway?) attending for their promotional event. Let’s hope the young people also enjoyed and were inspired by the wonderful classical pieces on the program and seek out other performances and listening experiences of works by these genius classical composers. But, Mr. Hanson’s encore choice may have also worked the other way, inspiring the older generation of the audience to seek out some Queen albums. My guest for the evening, in her seventh decade of life, had never heard the Queen song –She loved it!