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Dancing to Hungarian Folk Music

For the next three weeks, during the Kennedy Center's Music of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna festival, Christoph Eschenbach has programmed major vocal works. To give the singers a night off, these pieces will be performed only on Thursday and Saturday nights, with different programs of instrumental music on Friday nights, mostly lighter in nature. The first of these "B-side" programs, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, seemed calculated as a bone to throw to more conservative listeners: around my seat were several people talking about how they would be caught dead before sitting through a long Bartók opera -- the magnificent Duke Bluebeard's Castle, heard the previous night. The alternate program, with its series of lighter dance-inspired pieces (excepting the blood-curdling score from Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, which set the grumblers around me off again), could have been appropriate for a pops or gala concert. It was enjoyable nonetheless, and it was another chance to admire the savvy that Eschenbach sometimes shows in both shaking up the repertory choices and consoling that part of the audience that does not appreciate being shaken up.

The Transylvanian village where Bartók was born, Nagyszentmiklós, was named for St. Nicholas. In 1881, the town belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, but because of the conflict between Hungary and Romania after the end of World War I, it became part of Romania (it is now known as Sânnicolau Mare). The overlap of cultures in that part of the world meant that Bartók grew up with a sense of connection to both Hungarian and Romanian folk music. He composed the Romanian Folk Dances in 1915, a set of simple piano arrangements of Romanian folk tunes he recorded, transcribing them in equally simple orchestral versions a couple years later. Eschenbach gave the first of these dances, a stick dance, a heavy, plodding rhythm, and each miniature that followed had its own feel, featuring nuanced solos from clarinet, piccolo (in imitation of the shepherd flute the composer may have first these tunes on), and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, whose sometimes extravagant vibrato is quite suited to this kind of music.

In a not unrelated story Bartók's friend Zoltán Kodály grew up in the town of Galánta, which also belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary in the 1890s. After World War I, it became part of the newly created Czechoslovakia, returning to Hungary briefly during World War II, and since 1945 it remains part of what is now Slovakia. Kodály created his orchestral piece Dances of Galánta as a tribute to the music of the town's gypsy band, led by the violinist Mihók. The piece was a favorite of the NSO's former principal conductor Iván Fischer, who conducted it several times in the last few years, including in 2009. Principal clarinetist Loren Kitt had another admirable solo turn here, with a flexible gypsy-style sense of rallentando and accelerando, earning him an earnest round of applause from his colleagues. For a piece that has been on the NSO docket so much recently, the fast pieces did not always sit easily, especially at the frenetic tempos Eschenbach chose. The downside of the alternate Friday program may have been shaving available rehearsal time a little too close for comfort.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, National Symphony performs works of Bartok, Kodaly, Liszt and Brahms (Washington Post, March 12)
The suite from The Miraculous Mandarin was just as blood-curdling as it had been the previous night, with the NSO able to turn on a dime with all of Eschenbach's mercurial shifts of tempo. It made the pieces on either side of it come off as less substantial. Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1, showing that the devil has a gyspy soul, too, is not a great piece, but the tuba and other brass had fun galumphing along and the cello section spun out a suave theme in the middle section. Brahms's Hungarian Dances often serve as encores, and nos. 1, 3, and 5 had that feel at the end of this concert, although again sounding a little under-rehearsed, but no less toe-tapping in the fast sections.

The dance "B-side" of next week's NSO performance of Fidelio is a program of Viennese favorites by the composers of the Strauss family (March 16, 1:30 pm).

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