In its April 16 concert, the Sinfonia da Camera, led by Ian Hobson, set out to show what a brilliant orchestra it is. For those of us familiar with this ensemble, the issue was hardly in doubt. But, yes, this ensemble did play brilliantly in works by Paul Hindemith and Bela Bartok, proving along the way that the 20th century did produce great music that was both daring and accessible.
The evening began with a stirring reading of Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to his opera “Oberon.” For this opera, Weber’s librettist borrowed the characters Oberon, Titania and Puck from Shakespeare and put them into a medieval romance. It has been von Weber’s fate to be largely known by a group of splendid overtures to operas one seldom hears, at least outside Germany. In this performance, the horns of the Sinfonia excelled, and clarinetist J. David Harris earned a solo bow.
The composers Hindemith and Bartok make for an interesting comparison. Both men began their careers as musical rebels, both were forced, by Fascism and World War II, into American exile, and both composers, by the early 1940s, had stopped toppling the monuments of tradition, and produced works less likely to cause riots. Perhaps Hindemith’s career suffered the more. To have your ambitious opera, “Matthias the Painter,” canceled by the Nazis in 1934, must have been a shock.
But Hindemith recovered to write a very large amount of music, but little of it is heard in concert halls. An exception is his “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” which was performed at this concert with finesse and appropriate high spirits. The performers at the percussion battery were outstanding, and the “Chinese” effects in the “Turandot” Scherzo were especially piquant.
The story of the creation of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is a touching account of recovery and rebirth. In 1943, Bartok, sick and unhappy in America, was in a hospital bed when he was offered by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the sum of $1,000 for an orchestral work. That $1,000 would be now worth around $15,000. This material assertion of faith in Bartok’s talents resulted in an outpouring of creative energy from Bartok in the composition of his masterpiece, “Concerto for Orchestra.”
In this piece, Bartok wrote music that highlighted the skills of the various choirs of the orchestra. But this piece is far from a series of cadenzas; the instrumental brilliance is at the service of the creation of a large overarching musical structure.
Bartok also gave his sense of humor free play, especially in the second movement’s “Game of Pairs.” And in the fourth movement, you can hear an ironic allusion to an incessantly repeated motif from Dimitri Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony (No. 7),” then being given maximum exposure at concerts and on the radio.
The Sinfonia players went over the Concerto’s hurdles with ease, as Hobson led them through a highly dramatic performance. Bartok tried to give all the groups of players a turn in the spotlight, but, to my ears, the woodwinds and the brass get the lion’s share of the work’s riches. It was a fitting celebration of a highly successful Sinfonia season.
This program was dedicated to Kenneth Bengoechea, longtime subscriber and supporter of the Sinfonia, who passed away in March of this year.