The Roaring Twenties
Roy Thomson Hall
10/26/2016 - & October 27*, 2016
Steve Reich: Duet for Two Violins and Strings
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40
George Gershhwin: Rhapsody in Blue (orch. Ferde Grofé)
Zoltán Kodály: Suite from Háry János
Eri Kosaka, Shane Kim (violin), Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Krystjan Järvi (conductor)
D. Kozhukhin & K. Järvi (© Arthur Mola)
If your general view of the 1920s was that it was one long, unbridled party, this program that opens Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s three-part overview of the roaring decade gives proof.
However, one question arises: why start the concert with a piece by Steve Reich (born in 1936)? It turns out that his five-minute 1993 piece, Duet, is a tribute to the neo-classicism that began to flourish in the twenties. It was composed for Yehudi Menuhin and his Gstaad Festival Orchestra, and features two violinists (in this case TSO members Eri Kosaka and Shane Kim) and 24 string players (violas, cellos, and double basses only). The violinists play wistful cadences with an accompaniment of Reichian pulsations. There seems to be pent-up energy seeking a release - which does happen very briefly at the end.
Debuting guest conductor Krystjan Järvi is noted for his eclectic musical proclivities. Perhaps the Reich work was his choice? I wouldn’t have minded a neo-classical work from the decade - Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite or Apollon perhaps. As concert works they can come across as rather dry, but this represents an important aspect of the era.
The twenties were a fallow composition period for Sergei Rachmaninoff (although a busy one for performing). His Piano Concerto No. 4, premiered in 1927, and on which he had worked for 13 years or so, was greeted with puzzlement and hostility. One can understand the puzzlement, as the work, especially the opening movement, makes so many abrupt shifts. The lilting opening leads to a stretch of languorous orchestral playing juxtaposed with scrambling pianism. Ideas seem to be tossed aside - but then they reoccur. The Adagio movement has a bluesy start and a more discernable structure. If Gustav Mahler had composed a piano concerto it might have been something like this (and would have puzzled listeners just as his symphonies did). The conductor and debuting pianist Denis Kozhukhin seemed to be of one mind here, with a supple thoughtfulness emerging.
While the Rachmaninoff work took 13 years to compose, George Gershwin completed his Rhapsody in Blue in just four weeks. One of the musical symbols of the decade, it romped along very joyously. There were dazzling contributions from orchestra members - Joaquin Valdepenas’s opening clarinet strains and Jonathan Crow’s violin interlude, to name just two. “Wah-wahs” from the brass elicited laughter. If some of the pianistic and orchestral syncopations got out of sync toward the end, that only added to the fun.
Yet more fun, beginning with the orchestral sneeze, came with Zoltán Kodaly’s suite from Háry János, with its six sections all clearly defined. The animated (sometimes air-born) Järvi brought out all the sardonic edge to the anti-heroic marches, another reflection of the era. This was the third work of the evening featuring the saxophone - and let’s not overlook the cimbalom. Violist Teng Li brought forth the yearning quality in the third section.
An encore piece brought more Hungarian liveliness: the Presto section from Leó Weiner’s Hungarian Dance Suite, Op. 18.
This program came close to being a pops concert. (This is an observation, not a complaint.) More aspects of the 1920s will be presented in the next two sets of concerts in the TSO’s five-year-long Decades Project.