Columbus Symphony January 20, 21: Anna Polonsky Comes Home

Rossen Milanov conducts this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts(Photo: Princeton Symphony)
Rossen Milanov conducts this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts(Photo: Princeton Symphony)

Columbus Symphony

January 20 and 21*, Ohio Theater

Kodaly, Poulenc, Prokofiev

Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, pianos

Rossen Milanov, conductor

*broadcast live on Classical 101, 8 PM.

Pianist Anna Polonsky comes home to Columbus, where her father Leonid is Acting Concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony. Anna brings with her pianist Orion Weiss, from Lyndhurst Ohio who, aside from being a fine pianist himself, is Anna’s husband.

 

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Concerto for Two Pianos, (1932)

Discussion of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)  is always fun. Few composers had more contradictory personalities. Poulenc was born into a wealthy family (Poulenc-Rhone pharmaceuticals), he was well-educated, used to the best, he was gay when that was forbidden but fashionable, he was deeply spiritual and devoted to the Virgin Mary and he had a long musical and personal partnership with baritone Pierre Bernac.

Poulenc loved the church and he loved the boulevardiers. The latter influenced his first great success, the Serenade and the ballet Les biches.

By 1929, Poulenc wanted to change direction. At the same time he became acquainted with the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, born Winaretta Singer, an heiress to the Singer sewing Machine fortune. “Princess Winnie” convened a salon at her Parisian mansion and had supported artists going back to Gounod, and including Ravel, Faure, Stravinsky and Colette.  (Her life is discussed at length elsewhere on this blog. Search Winaretta Singer) She provided the funds for a piano concerto. Poulenc provided a concerto for two pianos, much to the lady’s delight.

Premiered in Venice in 1932,  Poulenc’s  Concerto for Two Pianos doesn’t leave the boulevard life far behind.  This work is sophisticated, complete with the flashes of humor and bite in a lot of the composer’s work. You can hear jazz, and you can hear Mozart. “I permitted myself to return to Mozart, because I prefer Mozart above all other musicians”

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)  Symphony 4, op. 112 (1947)

None of my reference books on the symphony discuss Sergei Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony at length. Maybe it’s because he wrote two 4th symphonies. The first in 1930,  like the Poulenc, followed a ballet written for Diaghilev (The Prodigal Son).  The 1931 premiere of the symphony op. 47  was tepidly received.  Prokofiev put this symphony away.

Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union in 1936, after years abroad, mystifies people to this day. His later works included two certified hits, the Fifth Symphony and the ballet Romeo and Juliet .

Prokofiev took his neglected fourth symphony off the shelf in 1945. He found a lot of materials worth re-using. What resulted was not a revision but a new work with some old themes. The Fourth Symphony  (1947) was ready just as the composer’s reputation took a nose dive with the Soviets. “Formalism in music!”  they railed. That came to mean a disdain for accessibility, for simple tunes everyone can understand.

Prokofiev had initially used a spare (as opposed to light) orchestration, with off kilter rhythms and lots of brass and percussion. The ‘juice’ in Romeo and Juliet came later and it was influenced by the alternating crash and flow in the 4th. Here, Prokofiev is deliberately provocative on the one hand, abandoning melody for sound  (“I’ll show you formalism!” ) with melody often celebrated in high calorie strings.

Prokofiev didn’t live to hear this symphony. The premiere waited until 1957, four years after the composer’s death. The composer survived Stalin, but not by much. They died on the same day, March 5, 1953.

Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967)  Dances of Galanta (1933)

 

And so to Zoltan Kodaly, another of those composers worth knowing better. He spent much of his life working as an ethnomusicologist. Those stories of  Kodaly and Bartok lugging a recording cylinder through the woods of Transylvania are true.  Kodaly’s devotion to Magyar folk music is evident in the Dances of Galanta–Galanta being a village where the composer spent some happy childhood years. It was in Galanta that Kodaly first heard the gypsy music that inspired his field work. This led to an interest in music education and the development of the Kodaly method.  Kids are still taught the rudiments of rhythm and pitch via Zoltan Kodaly, forty-five years after his death, with the earthiness and influence of the Galanta Dances

The piece is more than gypsy music grafted on to a large orchestra (it is that).  Kodaly uses the verbunkos. These were danced for young men about to enlist in the army. It was a collection of these dances, published in the early 19th century, that inspired Kodaly’s rollicking syncopated rhythms and his love for the music and dances of his countrymen.

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