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Hungarian Thread at Carnegie Hall

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri May 4th, 2018

Conductor Leon Botstein and the TÖN Orchestra

The Orchestra Now opened at Carnegie Hall with Amed Adnam Sayguin’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 53 (1974). In three parts, there appeared to be an historical program that I did not understand. The second movement contained some unusual sounds from a combination of instruments. The third movement marched off into the sunset to the rhythmic glee of arresting drums. I presume there was some irony here but what direction it came from I was at a loss.  

Lásló Lajtha, a diligent student of Vincent d’Indy in Paris and cordial academic colleague of Béla Bartók, was not only a composer but a noted teacher and ethno-musicologist. Lajtha was often accused of being debased by that most disgraceful and awkward of foreign corruptions—that of being an aesthetic Francophile with a small f. Despite the baleful influence of Debussy, he managed to compose some strikingly original music, especially his Suite No. 3 and his Symphony No. 7, Op. 63, which deserves far more exposure than Bard College’s The Orchestra Now can supply, but wisely offer it they did last Thursday evening when the thermometer hit 91 outside and a delightfully cool and exciting 70 degrees when played under the energetic baton of Leon Botstein.

Lajtha’s concert successes happen to have occurred only outside of Hungary, a situation that ensured a lifetime perspective of possessing (with grace) a deep sense of irony (which is always an asset for an artist). His Seventh Symphony nicknamed “Revolution” (1957) had been bestowed on him by the Muse of History and it was clear that the brief introductory remarks by violinist Drew Youmans (who began playing violin at the age of four) elicited a contemporary parallel with current millennials who feel the psychological lash of our current emperor without morals. There was the articulated historical situation, but also the robust execution of the parallel in the enthusiasm with which these students played Symphony No. 7.

Lajtha’s genius made the self-evident dramatic, gripping, shocking. While the Slavic shoulder of benevolence and political correctness weighed on the hearts of amazed Hungarians, little did this brazen muscle realize that it could be mocked, ridiculed, and displayed to the world as predictable cartoon barbarism. The opening first movement with its angular dissonance sounds like a descent into hell, a hell well-stocked with peculiar novelties and the smashing of bricks and glass as casual gestures. Despite desultory dissonance there is a hypnotic tune by two harps in the second movement—definitely haunting at the fingertips of Emily Melendes and Kathryn Sloat. In this movement cellos were employed in a choral manner (as in Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique) as the dignified chorus of artists with a conscience (who were, of course, ignored by opportunist fanatics). Mathew Ross on flute, Thomas J. Wible on flute, and Elias Rodriguez on clarinet and Sangwon Lee on alto sax were superlative. An audio link of Symphony No. 7 appears below.

While there is an excellent recording of Lajtha’s Seventh Symphony on the Naxos label, it was an incredible thrill to hear a live performance. The Seventh is a classic, which means it is worth hearing much more than once. The third movement obviously portrays an idyllic pause from the brutality of the Russian occupation, yet that lyric Sunday rest is subject to sudden shocking abuse; re-establishment of the idyll wanders with a cloak of bemused irony beyond the imagination of cliché.

Peter Serkin and Anna Polonsky played Béla Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940), which allowed Bartok and his wife to have a successful tour of the States. The pianos became advanced percussion instruments. This novelty appeared charming, dated, anti-climatic.