Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bartok: From Harrisburg to Downton Abbey, All in the Same Day

Following this weekend's January Thaw Masterworks Concert, which included an amazing performance of Bela Bartók's suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, I posted the text of my pre-concert talk which you can read on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

By the way, you can read reviews of the Saturday night performance by Keri Larsen with the Patriot News here and by David Dunkle with the Carlisle Sentinel here.

Since I made a passing reference to the hit period-drama Downton Abbey in my pre-concert talk, referring to the impact of World War I on the Crawley family's private and public lives in relation to its impact on the life of Bartók the composer, I was amused to hear Bela Bartók had a passing reference in the second episode of the new season which aired Sunday night on WITF-TV.

Maggie Smith & Penelope Wilton listen to Puccini
During the course of a weekend House Party, Lady Grantham is delighted to offer her guests a private recital by the great Australian opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (played admirably by the New Zealand-born soprano, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) much to the confusion of her often hapless husband and their butler Carson, himself a former song-and-dance man who cannot imagine seating a singer at her ladyship's dinner table. Once that was straightened out, I noticed her pianist was still expected to eat with the servants.

The recital, just one layer of the story at this point, opens with one of Dvořák's Songs My Mother Taught Me (which Dame Nellie recorded in 1916) before she begins to sing Puccini's “O mio babbino caro.”

At this point, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) leans over to Cousin Isobel and says, “What a relief. I thought we might be in for some of that awful German Lieder. You can never go wrong with Puccini.”

Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) responds tersely, “I prefer Bartok.”

The Dowager (casting her a trademark Maggie Smith look) sits back and grumbles, “You would.”

Of course, watching Maggie Smith toss off her lines as the Dowager is one of the joys of this show and she wields them with all the aplomb of the finest virtuosos in the world. And the rivalry between her and the considerably less aristocratic mother of Downton's heir, the late and much lamented Matthew Crawley, is one of those dramatic delights.

Both women of strong opinions, their proximity is often like two tectonic plates passing in the night.

However, I'd never have taken Cousin Isobel as a cutting-edge fan of contemporary music. Keep in mind, she did travel in France during the war as part of a relief organization and worked for a refugee committee afterward, so she might have heard, say, the most recent music by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.

But Bartók? Not so much.

And this is where my quibble comes in. Now, if it had been a reference to some popular topic – say, a comic book superhero or a sport analogy – and they got it wrong, lots of people would be jumping up and down, complaining about the error. So here, I put on my Dr. Dick persona (akin to Dr. Temperance Brennan in Bones, if you want an apt pop-culture reference) and say,

Musicologically speaking, this is not likely. Stravinsky would've been a better choice, though I'm glad Bartók got at least a mention.

You see, this event apparently takes place in March of 1922, if you're following the story line.

Now, the Harrisburg Symphony just played Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin which was a fairly early piece of his mature period. It was written between 1918-1919 but it wasn't premiered until 1926 in Cologne, Germany, and then only performed once. No one else heard the music until the suite taken from it was performed in Budapest in 1928.

Bartók was still waiting for some kind of international recognition even though he'd already composed the opera Bluebeard's Castle (begun in 1911, it wasn't performed until 1918) and a ballet, The Wooden Prince which, in 1917, had given Bartók his first home-grown success when it was premiered in Budapest. There are already two string quartets, numerous piano pieces and some of his folk song arrangements, but they were not blazing a trail across Europe that reached all the way to the wilds of Yorkshire where the fictional Downton Abbey is located.

In 1918, a German publisher produced some of his piano pieces and the English composer Philip Heseltine (better known as Peter Warlock) was sent some copies of these. He included Bartók and these pieces in a talk given in Dublin that year called “What Is Music?”

When he was traveling in Central Europe in 1921, Heseltine was in Budapest and met Bartók whom he invited to come to England and perform. This was arranged for the following year but it was a small-scale recital given in Wales in March of 1922 – the same exact month Dame Nellie Melba was singing Puccini at Downton Abbey. It would be unlikely, even if there were contemporary music aficionados in Yorkshire, they would've known much about Bela Bartók so soon.

Bartók, according to many sources, didn't have his “first international success” until the “1922 performances in London and Paris,” when he performed his 2nd Violin Sonata with the Hungarian-born violinist, Jelly D'Arányi.

So when were these performances? Could Cousin Isobel have dropped down to London before the March house party and discovered her love of Bartók?

Let's put it this way: Bartók wrote his 2nd Violin Sonata between July and November of 1922.

So the answer, there, is no. Though it's rather amusing to imagine the general reaction of the aristocrats of Downton and their invited servants to hearing Bartók's new violin sonata, if the time continuum permitted.

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(Isaac Stern, violin; Yefim Bronfman, piano)
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Perhaps in some future episode of Downton Abbey, Cousin Isobel will turn Crawley House into a writer's colony for contemporary composers?

Does it matter? No, not really – it's still a great line and, even if fleeting, a nice retort to the Dowager Countess with as few claws and as little hissing as possible.

But it amuses me that, given the penchant for liberties taken in writing for films and TV that even in as highly researched a production as Downton Abbey, it's not exactly accurate.

No matter – I will continue watching the show as long as Maggie Smith has lines to zing and Cousin Isobel (if not everyone else) continues to hold her own against them.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

January's Miraculous Music: Bartok's Mandarin Comes to Town

The first time I heard The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartók was live at a concert and the opening hit me so hard, I practically leaped out of my seat, it was so exciting!

The fact it was the Cleveland Orchestra on the road with George Szell didn't hurt and the fact we were in Davis Gym at Bucknell University and I was sitting in the bleachers at the back of the 1st Violin section (incredible view, btw) was amazing.

This was back when I was a college sophomore at nearby Susquehanna University, fifty years after the music had been composed. I didn't know the piece – in fact I only knew a couple pieces by Bartók like the Concerto for Orchestra – and didn't really know what to expect. It is still one of those “incredible memories” I recall, almost 45 years later, with a sense of excitement and wonder. Miraculous, indeed!

Whether you know it or not, you'll get a chance to hear it live this weekend when Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony – Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum. Markus Groh will be playing Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto (you can read about it, here) and the concert opens with a delightful work by Michael Torke called “Javelin,” written for the 1996 Summer Olympics (and you can read about it, here).

I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, so drop in early – at least the weather will be warmer (a high of 50° – really?) and besides, parking is easier to find, then!

When I posted this on Facebook, a short excerpt, just the last two minutes of music, I thought this was pretty exciting.

Mariss Jansons is rehearsing the Oslo Philharmonic, here, and I'm convinced his last words are “Ja – yowzá, thank you very much.”

Looking around for live concert videos of the Suite on You-Tube, always a challenge at best, I found several “good” performances (sometimes w/bad recordings) but nothing that “pulled me out of my seat.”

Then I found this. I thought, “yeah, Claudio Abbado should be good.” Good? Yowzá!! And this is a YOUTH orchestra! (Eat your heart out, Gustavo Dudamel.) It was recorded in 1980 with the European Community Youth Orchestra and there are serious issues with the video and, alas, some sound problems on occasion, but, really, this is one of the most exciting (if over-the-top) performances I've heard since that memorable concert in 1969 or early 1970 with Szell and Cleveland.

Bartok composing in 1918
But first, let me give you the story behind this music and then you can follow the scenario while listening to the video clip.

In 1919, someone interviewed Bela Bartók and he said this about the piece he was still composing:

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So, in the meantime, I am writing music for a play by Menyhért Lengyel, its title is: The Miraculous Mandarin. And just listen to how miraculously beautiful its story is. In a ruffians’ den three rogues force a beautiful young girl to entice men up to her place, so that they then rob them.— The first one is a poor lad, the second one is no better, but the third one is a rich Chinaman. It is a good catch, the girl entertains him with dancing and the mandarin’s desire is awakened, passionate love blazes within him, but the girl is repulsed by him.— The ruffians attack him, rob him, suffocate him with [blankets], run him through with a sword, but all in vain, they are no match for the mandarin, who looks at the girl with loving and longing eyes.— Female intuition helps, the girl fulfills the mandarin’s desire at which point he falls lifeless to the floor.
Bela Bartók, interviewed in 1919
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Though we'd call it a ballet, he referred to it as a “dance pantomime.” Shortly after finishing it and realizing it would be a while till he could get the work staged, he adapted part of it for a concert work, the suite you most often hear.

Now, the story is quite sordid – “crime, sex and murder,” after all, but then the same could be said of a lot of opera as far as back as the 1600s and certainly a good deal of what passes for entertainment today in movies and on television.

It's just this level of crime, sex and murder seemed a little excessive to the popular taste in the 1920s.

When it was first staged in Cologne, Germany, it was met with fierce outrage in the audience (both pro and con) but the mayor of the city stepped in and closed the theater, banning all future performances of the work. (The mayor, Konrad Adenauer, went on to become Chancellor of West Germany in 1949 at the age of 63.)

Bartók explained the opening of the piece in a letter to his wife, shortly after he began composing it:

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But I’m already thinking about the mandarin, as well; if it works out it will be a devilish piece. Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting: I lead the Hon[orable] listener into the apache den from the bustle of a metropolitan street.
Bela Bartók, Sept. 15th, 1918
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Keep in mind, World War I would not officially end for another two months. He's using the term “apache” here in the sense of those bohemian thugs famous in Paris since the early 1900s, the equivalent of modern street gangs. They are cold and hungry (just as Bartók often was at this time, still an unknown quantity as a composer, when he was writing this).

And so the story begins: here is Claudio Abbado and the European Community Youth Orchestra.

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0:00 – on the streets of the Big City, the hustle and bustle of night life
1:09 – we enter the 2nd floor room where three thugs are holding a young girl
2:07 – they force her to stand at the window and entice a man into the room so they can rob him
2:57 – her first “siren call” (clarinet solo)
4:28 – the first person to respond starts walking up the steps: the thugs hide themselves to wait for the right moment to attack him
5:08 – the first victim turns out to be a well-dressed but care-worn old man who's a bit pompous and clearly down on his luck but still tries to impress the girl, but she is repulsed by him – then he admits he has no money
6:29 – the thugs rush out at him, tossing him (and his battered top hat) down the steps
6:42 – her second “siren call” (clarinet solo)
7:53 – the second victim enters hesitantly, a young student, shy and embarrassed
8:26 – she likes him better, tries to get him to dance with her, but he's shy and also, he has no money
9:24 – the thugs rush him and push him down the stairs as well
9:37 – her third “siren call” (begins with clarinet solo)
10:36 – the thugs anticipate the arrival of the new victim who comes up the steps accompanied by strange oriental music
11:06 – the Mandarin appears in the doorway, frightening and awesome (if not yet miraculous)
12:00 – but he just stands there, staring at the girl who is afraid of him
13:08 – she tries to get him to respond but he just stands there, watching her
14:15 – she begins a slow, seductive dance, awkwardly at first; again, no response from the strange mandarin
16:34 – he gradually begins to show interest in her
17:02 – she resumes her dance
17:36 – suddenly he begins to pursue her around the room, chasing her; she is terrified
sketches for the Miraculous Mandarin (p. 2 = 17:36 of video)

Now, at this point, Bartók ends the suite but the ballet continues for another ten minutes or so. The thugs, realizing he may harm the girl, rush out to attack the Mandarin but they cannot control him. First they smother him on the bed, but he comes back to consciousness and continues to pursue the girl. This time, the thugs stab him and he falls but doesn't bleed. Just as they think he's dead, he comes to life again and continues his pursuit. Ultimately, the thugs catch him and tie him up, hanging him from the overhead light fixture. Again, he appears to die. But he isn't dead yet – in fact, when they cut him down, they realize he is still alive. This time, the girl takes pity on him and caresses him. Only then do his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

Now, with a story like that, you can imagine why this would create a scandal – it wasn't just the music alone. In fact, a later production, trying to get around the censors, eliminated the suggestive bed and another reset it outside in the countryside, none of which softened the music's impact, you would think.

After that initial stage production in Cologne – the one that closed after one night in 1926, seven years after the music was completed – Bartók wrote this to his mother:

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...in Cologne after Mandarin there was a noisy demonstration against the text and a counter-demonstration in my support. The riot lasted a good ten minutes and they lowered the safety curtain, too, but the people still didn’t leave, so the fire-door was twice opened, too. Well, I can tell you that there was frantic applause (and frantic hissing)! You really should have been there, at such a big disturbance! ...The [Buda]Pest newspapers report that the piece was officially banned; this is very likely, and my people in Cologne were on the one hand also afraid of this, and on the other, Szenkár says there’s no finer publicity than a ban like this. Well, we shall see.
Bartók to his mother, December 2, 1926
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Keep in mind, the story and the music it inspired were written during the final, devastating years of World War I. The economy had collapsed and after the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Hungary found itself a finally independent country (rather than a politically but not culturally autonomous part of the Austrian Empire) in a political and economic vacuum. (Think Iraq after the war officially ended there, recently.)

But it had lost a large part of its ethnic territory, large minorities of Hungarians now living in what had been ceded to Romania, to what eventually became Yugoslavia, to Austria and to the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. There was considerable concern about Hungarians' national and ethnic identity as a result of these sudden and difficult changes. Then, between the end of the war and the time Bartók finished this score, there were three political revolutions in Budapest in less than two years!

So if you think the story and the music are violent, the turmoil of those times might explain a little of that.

My pre-concert talk before each performance went into more of this historical background to the works on the program: you can read the text of it, posted on my blog Thoughts on a Train, here.

– Dick Strawser

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Miraculous Music, Part 2: Michael Torke's Javelin

Five days after the Invasion of the Dreaded Polar Vortex comes the January Thaw – below zero on Tuesday, possibly near 50° on Saturday – and with it, this weekend's Masterworks Concert, “Miraculous Music.”

The program this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm includes one of the great 19th Century Piano Concertos, another of those dramatic early-20th Century ballets, and opens with a delightfully celebratory work by an American composer intended to reflect the Atlanta Olympics of 1996.

Music stuck in his head
As we get ready to watch the Winter Olympics in Sochi in a few weeks, it's nice to hear a piece of music that owes its existence to some previous Olympic games. After all, we don't often mix the idea of sports in this country with classical music, do we?

The Atlanta Symphony was celebrating its 50th Anniversary at the same time, so they commissioned Michael Torke, then in his early-30s (see a more recent photo, right), asking him to write something for them that would reflect both. The piece, entitled “Javelin,” has a propulsive drive appropriate for an athletic event and a great tune that keeps on spinning, up-lifting the spirit – exhilarating, as one critic wrote the year “Javelin” was premiered: Torke writes “some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music to appear in recent years.”

It's always tough finding a good performance with a good recording of a piece of music on You-Tube and though this performance may not be as exhilarating as some I've heard (as much for the recording), it's the best one I can find for orchestra. In this case, it's the Texas Medical Center Orchestra made up of doctors, scientists, dentists, nurses, and med students from the Houston area.

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A blogger in Columbus, OH, just posted this interview with Michael Torke on her blog yesterday, so I'll include the link here for you to read the whole thing.

When she asks him “What do you hope is gained from your music,” he says,

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I hope that they gain what art is supposed to do. Why do we have art? It fills our souls, lifts us up. It’s this amazing, transformative thing that can do good for people. When I listen to Bach, my brain cells regroup. I feel this peace and well-being. Isn’t it amazing that art can do that? I hope I can write something that’s transformative to others.

...One of the great things about art is that it’s supposed to last over time. Dickens is still read today. There are probably a lot of authors though from his time that we’ve since forgotten about. My goal is to write music that’s still interesting and listened to when I’m dead and gone. I got a lot of attention in my 20s, 30s, so what now in my 50s? I’m grateful that orchestras still play my music. There’s something that maybe transcends the immediate time and if that’s true, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
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Growing up in an age when composers heard rock music and film scores as well as Beethoven and Bach, they realized anything you experienced could influence your art. If Leonard Bernstein would've been a very different composer without jazz, Michael Torke might take some ideas from his contemporary classical colleagues like Philip Glass, Steve Reich or John Adams as well as the pop world of the Beach Boys, rock and rap music or John Williams.

For that matter, just as Dvorak absorbed the Bohemian folk music he grew up in or as Brahms sat in the smoky taverns of Vienna tapping his foot to the gypsy bands he heard there (the 1880s equivalent of New York City's jazz clubs).

And it wasn't just folk music that influenced Bela Bartok, as you can read in the next post in this series about his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, January 6, 2014

January's Miraculous Music: Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto

Markus Groh will play Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto this week
While people around here may question whether there's such a thing as “Farm Show Weather,” it seems we're going to be getting some of the coldest temperatures we've had in two decades this week: who knows what to expect with this yo-yo winter we've been having so far?

At least the forecast for this weekend is calling for temperatures in the upper-30s to mid-40s, maybe even 50s, perhaps the legendary “January Thaw.” That in itself sounds like a miracle.

The good news is, the January Masterworks Concert, billed as “Miraculous Music,” with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony is this weekend. And joining us will be German pianist Markus Groh who last appeared here in the 2006-2007 season to play Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. This time, he'll be playing Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto.

The concerts are Saturday the 11th at 8pm and again Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, talking about the times in their composers' lives when these pieces were composed.

Here is our soloist playing two solo piano pieces: the first is an encore following a concert with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra – Franz Liszt's La Campanella, a solo piano version of a Paganini solo violin caprice,

and here's the E-flat Major Impromptu by Franz Schubert:

There are a few clips of interviews from German television available on-line, but this one at least has English subtitles:

For those of you who speak German, you can view two other interviews here where's he's playing some Brahms – and this one, recorded “at home” and includes some refrigerator art by his children, here. Even if you don't speak German, I think you can get the gist of it to enjoy a casual moment with an artist at home.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It might seem odd that Brahms would only write two piano concertos since he was an acclaimed concert pianist himself, even if he performed only rarely compared to the typical traveling virtuoso. If he hated touring, he hated practicing more.

It's a huge concerto as one might expect, given the size and scope of the first piano concerto and the violin concerto he'd premiered only two years before. Not only is it a “combination of symphony and concerto,” it even includes an additional movement than was standard in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One of the complaints (if one can imagine them) with the Violin Concerto had been the opening orchestral “introduction” before the soloist is first heard: this annoyed many soloists of the day. Even Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because, in addition to that, he wasn't going to stand on stage at the beginning of the second movement doing nothing while the oboist played the melody!

So perhaps that's why his next concerto opens almost immediately with the soloist. Even then, it was still called “a symphony with piano obbligato.” Believe me, there's nothing optional about this piano part!

This performance of the complete concerto, clocking in at 48 minutes, is a 1977 concert recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Maurizio Pollini.
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Brahms was fairly tight-lipped about his new concerto: no one knows when he began work on it – he'd started sketching it during a vacation in Italy in 1878 but put it aside to write the Violin Concerto instead. From then until he completed it in the summer of 1881, he apparently never mentioned it.

That summer, he wrote to a friend of his, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, how he'd finished “a tiny little concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.”

Now, we know from previous letters to her, Brahms liked to joke around about his music, though he was rarely ever modest (in fact, he was probably as much a jerk about it as his rival Wagner was an egomaniac in his own right). Consider the concerto's length – performances between 48 and 54 minutes? – it's hardly “tiny” even if you don't consider the demands on the soloist. I've heard too many pianists try to play Brahms' concertos who just don't have the strength or stamina to cut through his orchestral writing. It's more than just being able to play lots of notes very fast!

And then there's the scherzo.

This is the additional movement, placed second in the scheme of things. At about 10 minutes' length itself, one thing a listener (or a performer) would not call it is “wispy.” Scherzo in Italian means “joke,” but this is far from light-hearted music, much less “funny.”

Beethoven's scherzos were often the populist equivalent of his teacher Haydn's upper-crust minuets: think, if you want, that the traditional 18th Century minuet would be, say, a dance upstairs at Downton Abbey while Beethoven was writing something the downstairs staff might feel more at home with.

But Brahms often wrote fairly demonic scherzos – even some of his last piano pieces which were called “capriccios” are hardly capricious, but out-and-out mini-dramas. The “scherzo” of his C Minor Piano Quartet would make your hair stand on end.

This scherzo may be more robust – though the middle bit is certainly a breath of sunshine – and definitely dramatic. It's also in D Minor which, for Brahms, is a tonality he associates with tragedy. The Tragic Overture, in fact, written at the same time he was working on this concerto, is also in D Minor. But then, he wrote perhaps his most unbuttoned piece, the Academic Festival Overture that same summer!

When asked about the “change in tone” between the lofty, almost philosophical detachment of the first and the second movement's turmoil, Brahms supposedly explained he felt the first movement was too “harmless” and needed some passionate contrast!

Curiously, he had originally planned to add a scherzo to the Violin Concerto but then deleted it. We assume that's the movement that ended up in the 2nd Piano Concerto.

That said, the slow movement then returns to the loftier plane of the first movement, opening with a gorgeous cello solo – almost like chamber music embedded within the orchestra and, later, with the soloist.

The finale is yet another mood swing. It wasn't uncommon for concertos to have light-hearted dance-like finales – the Violin Concerto ended with a vast Hungarian Dance, not an uncommon way for Brahms to wrap things up. In an earlier generation, Ludwig Spohr ended some of his concertos with a polonaise or a Spanish bolero!

Taormina, Sicily
Here, though, you can definitely hear how the work was inspired not by one but by two vacations to Italy during the course of its composition. This is probably Brahms at his most human, enjoying himself. Traveling with friends who had trouble keeping up with him, Brahms loved Venice (and its wine) but especially Taormina on the coast of Sicily, where he loved to stand on the cliffs above the town overlooking the sea.

Brahms was 45 when he began sketching the concerto and was 48 when he gave it its premiere in 1881. Unlike the 1st Piano Concerto, premiered when he was 25 and when, he said, “three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap” before the hissing began, the 2nd Concerto was an immediate success. His friend, conductor Hans von Bülow, was also a highly regarded pianist who, if he wasn't conducting Brahms' music, might be playing it. And since Brahms was also a conductor of his own works, the two of them took the new concerto around Germany, sometimes switching roles as soloist or conductor. One program where they'd performed both concertos, Brahms would be the soloist in one, then von Bülow would be the soloist in the other.

Here's another performance of the first movement of the concerto with Rudolf Buchbinder the pianist and Nicholas Harnoncourt conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The score is the standard “study” version with the orchestra part reduced for a second piano.

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You can read more about the 20th Century works on the program – Michael Torke's “Javelin” and the suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartók shortly. The complete text of my pre-concert talk is available on my blog, Thoughts on a Train, which you can read here.

Dick Strawser