This past weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performed a series of concerts led by Austrian conductor Hans Graf. On the program were three works by composers from Eastern European countries: Concerto for Orchestra by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály; the Concerto No. 2 in A major for piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt, another Hungarian composer; and the Symphony No. 8 in G major by Antonin Dvorák, who was born in Bohemia (which then became Czechoslovakia and is nowadays the Czech Republic).
The May 3 concert opened with the Concerto for Orchestra by Zoltan Kodály, which is nothing like its much more popular namesake from fellow countryman Bela Bartók. Kodály’s concerto, which predates the Bartók, was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to honor its 50th anniversary and was premiered in 1941. Unlike Bartók’s concerto, which is scored for a bigger orchestra, the Kodály is written in the style of the older concerto grosso and, like that form, features the interplay between the orchestra and various groups of musicians, in particular a string quintet comprising two cellos, violin and two violas – played richly on this occasion by the principal strings. The concerto, a continuous work in three movements, is noteworthy, in part, for the absence of percussion instruments (save for a triangle). It is always a treat to hear an obscure work for the first time, especially one that is as delightful as the Kodály, and the L.A. Phil under Graf played it with a vitality and freshness that befitted its premiere by the orchestra.
The first half of the concert concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major by Liszt with the young Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein. Although Liszt’s second concerto is less of a virtuoso piece than his first, one can nevertheless discern from this concerto that Liszt was more of a performer than a composer. It is somewhat interesting that Liszt, who was a virtuoso pianist and a relatively major composer, only wrote two piano concerti, neither of which exceeded 20 minutes. Like the Kodály, the Liszt is one continuous movement consisting of six sections. Gerstein, a tall, lanky Russian, seemed to loom over the keyboard, but his hands danced effortlessly across the keys as both he and Graf were in almost perfect sync. Too bad the orchestra at times overshadowed the piano part. The allegro moderato features a solo cello part somewhat reminiscent of the Brahms second piano concerto, which was beautifully played by Principal Cellist Peter Stumpf. The audience appreciated Gerstein’s performance, and he rewarded them with an encore of the Liebesleid by Fritz Kreisler (arr. Rachmaninoff).
The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, the Symphony No. 8 in G major by Dvorák, written in 1889. Dvorak followed in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms (as opposed to the tradition of Liszt and Wagner) of writing pure music in the late Romantic style. Dvorák composed the eighth symphony in a spurt of inspiration within about two months in the fall of 1889 at his cottage in the Bohemian countryside. Perhaps not surprisingly, the eighth symphony, unlike its darker and more stormy predecessor, is upbeat and sunny, although there are some solemn moments, especially the G minor opening of the first movement and sections of the C minor Adagio. Nevertheless, the overall feel of the symphony is one of joy and triumph, perhaps reflecting, in part, Dvorák’s peaceful surroundings.
Graf, who is not terribly expressive, conducted the symphony in a crisp but restrained manner, which worked for the inner two movements, but felt somewhat lacking in the outer movements, especially the last movement. Perhaps he was trying to accentuate the triumphant coda dominated by brass and tympani. Either way, the L.A. Phil, as always, showed why they are indeed a world-class orchestra.
A subtle aspect of Graf’s conducting also caught our attention. The scores of all three pieces on the program included trombones and Graf was not shy about featuring them, especially in the last movement of the Dvorák. It was almost as if he and the L.A. Phil trombone section were paying tribute to Principal Trombonist Steven Witser, who died this week at the age of 48.