In this program, we hear a trio of dynamically scored pieces that marry folk and popular tunes with lush orchestral scoring.
Dances of Galánta 1933 | 15 mins
Kodály spent part of his childhood in Galánta, a small Hungarian market town that boasted a famous gypsy band. Recalling those years, the composer incorporated gypsy themes from those childhood songs into this piece. In the course of five movements, we are treated to various manifestations of the traditional Hungarian verbunkos style, in which swagger gives way to irresistible foot-stamping. Listen for the clarinet, who takes on the role of the single-reed tárogató in Hungarian folk music. This work, however, is no mere folk-song recital; instead, everything is filtered through the composer’s colorful brand of brilliantly orchestrated modernism.
Piano Concerto in G major 1931 | 20 mins
Ravel's G major Concerto begins like some wondrous contraption in a toy shop: A percussionist releases the wound up spring of the slapstick. The piano is there, right from the beginning, contributing to the buzz. After a while, it comes to the fore with a languid theme that reminds us that this work was written to charm American audiences. Ravel was smitten with what he knew of jazz, and diverse blue twists are seductively prominent. The Adagio is the reason we not only delight in this concerto but truly love it. The piano, alone, spins out a long, long melody over a kind of slow waltz bass. The brief and irresistible finale completely lives up to Ravel’s “lighthearted and brilliant” concerto ideal. In the end, a crack of percussion carries us back to the concerto's opening, and the final bang is colored by a bass drum thump.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60 1806 | 31 mins
Beethoven opens his Fourth and Fifth symphonies. He opens the Fourth with a hushed, introspective introduction. Then, a rapidly ascending figure cuts through the darkness and breaks apart, not unlike fireworks that fragment into sparkling shards. Suddenly we realize that the orchestra has embarked on what actually will be a thoroughly playful fast movement. The extraordinary second movement features recurring rhythms, which both support and foil a tender melody that unrolls above it. In his third movement, Beethoven offers the high-energy of a scherzo. Competing rhythms pulse to yield much drama. Before he reaches the end, the composer works in a last laugh or two until, with a final surge of energy and a few boisterous chords, Beethoven’s Fourth crosses the finish line buoyantly.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.