Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko made his debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). He prepared a program that featured the first half of the twentieth century before the intermission and the second half of the nineteenth century for the concluding portion. His concerto soloist was the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who was making only his fourth appearance with SFS. The concerto selection was Béla Bartók’s first violin concerto.
This concerto is as fascinating for its backstory as it is for the music itself. The music was a product of Bartók’s infatuation with a beautiful young violinist named Stefi Geyer, whom he met in the summer of 1907. Bartók wrote a series of love letters to Geyer, but she rejected him firmly. In the midst of this frustration, Bartók began work on his violin concerto, approaching it as an exploration of Geyer’s character. He presented the score to her, and that was the last anyone heard of it until it received its first performance in 1958, when it was found a year and a half after her death. (Bartók had died in 1948.)
One theme from the concerto, however, was performed during Bartók’s lifetime. The opening theme was repurposed for the first of his two Opus 5 “portraits” for orchestra. Those who know their American Songbook will find this theme familiar, and there may be good reason. A young Russian composer named Vladimir Dukelsky may well have heard Opus 5, either when he was in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes or later when he moved to New York and changed his name to Vernon Duke. Bartók’s theme could then possibly have been in his head when he composed “I Can’t Get Started;” and that song seems almost painfully apposite in light of Bartók’s frustrations with Geyer, even if Duke never knew about them.
The music is particularly striking for its opening, which, in many ways set a rhetorical standard for subsequent works. The violin soloist introduces the “I Can’t Get Started” theme and unfolds it as a sinuously winding passage. This is followed by the entry of additional string soloists from the ensemble, winding around the theme in an elaborate counterpoint that is almost, but not quite, fugal. 33 measures elapse before the ensemble, as a whole, begins to participate in this counterpoint. In many ways this stylistic approach anticipates the same sort of contrapuntal fabric that would find its way into the opening of Bartók’s first string quartet only a few years later; and, while Bartók keeps adding instruments in the concerto, the counterpoint pervades the entire movement.
The second movement, with a tempo marking of Allegro giocoso, then “let’s off steam” after the intensity of the first movement. Bartók dispenses with his quiet introspection in favor of more raucous wit. There are abundant references to “folk-style fiddling,” energetically punctuated with expostulations from the ensemble. As would later be the case in Opus 5, the concerto emerges as a study of two sharply contrasting moods.
While Kremer kept his body language minimal, his account of those contrasts could not have been more vivid; and Boreyko could not have served him better with ensemble support. Between the two of them, it was difficult to mistake the presence of the emotional roller-coaster that Bartók was riding as he penned this concerto. Nevertheless, this was a performance that prioritized the music itself, allowing the listener to grasp and appreciate even the slightest of gestures that Bartók had tucked away in this highly personal score.
The nineteenth century was represented by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 55 in G major, the third of his orchestral suites. Tchaikovsky composed four of these suites between 1878 and 1887, the period between his fourth and fifth symphonies. The last of them is actually an arrangement of lesser-known (at least at the time Tchaikovsky was writing) short pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Music for the first three suites was original, referred to as “not-quite-symphonies” in the booklet notes by James M. Keller. The theme-and-variations movement that concludes Opus 55 is probably best known as the music for “Theme and Variations,” which George Balanchine choreographed for Ballet Theatre (rather than his own company) in the fall of 1947.
Taken as a whole, the suite seems to be an exploration of relatively conventional forms for the expression of a series of mood pieces, culminating in the diverse dispositional attitudes of the variations that conclude with a razzle-dazzle full-orchestra finale. Considering the context in which it was composed, it is significantly more subdued than either Opus 36 in F minor (the fourth symphony) or Opus 64 in E minor (the fifth). Perhaps it was just that Tchaikovsky avoided the dangers of being overwrought when working in a major key.
Nevertheless, working with variations was not really Tchaikovsky’s string suit. He had already done a first-rate job in his Opus 50 piano trio in A minor. The theme for the final movement is in E major; and it is followed by nine highly imaginative variations (one of which is as fugue). There is then an exuberant finale in A major, which then lapses into the dark recollection of the opening theme of the entire trio in A minor.
This was a tough act to follow; and the process of variation in Opus 55 is nowhere near as inventive. Tchaikovsky only seems to find his mojo in the work’s own “exuberant finale,” which definitely sparkles with the sonorities of a full orchestra. Nevertheless, Boreyko gave the entire composition focused attention, often using his hands, rather than a baton, to negotiate some of the finer webs of counterpoint that Tchaikovsky had woven.
Boreyko opened his program with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 60 suite entitled Lieutenant Kijé. The music was originally composed for Aleksandr Faintsimmer’s 1934 Soviet film of the same name, which, in turn was based on a novel with the same title by Yury Tynyanov. Michael Steinberg’s notes for the program book describe this novel perfectly as “a tale of military bureaucracy gone berserk.” The name “Kijé” is entered into a document through a slip of a clerk’s pen; but, once the name has been become part of an official record, it is necessary that the person behind the name also exist. Thus, the story is a wild tale of the birth, life, marriage, and death of an non-existent officer.
The five movements of the suite capture different stages of this absurd biography in their chronological order. The thematic vocabulary is relatively limited, but it is always fresh, brash, and folksy. Prokofiev may well have composed the suite allow his music to get beyond the limitations of the audio quality of films in 1934; and his orchestral sonorities are brisk and dazzling. Dissonance is used only for the sake of a belly-laugh or two, particularly in the case of a stubborn appoggiatura depicting one of the guests at Kijé’s wedding, who was probably the first to get drunk. Boreyko definitely knew how to capture the good-natured humor of this music; and his control of the orchestra provided an excellent account of how skillfully Prokofiev had “distributed the action” across the entire ensemble (and over to an offstage trumpet).