Concert Review: A cure for Bartok-phobia

We are now living in the second decade of the 21st century yet there pockets of audiences that still display an aversion to 20th century music. One music teacher once told this reviewer she was leaving a concert early, hoping to avoid sitting through a work by the great 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). Bartok Tonight! at the Victoria Concert Hall on Friday by The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) conducted by Lim Yau would have been the perfect remedy for Bartok-phobia.

The orchestra, in its Composers Tonight! series, has successfully wedded concert music with a highly engaging musical education approach, helmed by the witty actor-director William Ledbetter in collaboration with Lim. His deliveries of pre-performance preambles have been unstuffy, refreshingly free of technical jargon, while being factually sound and accurate. With Bartok, he dwelled on the composer's passion for collecting and preserving folk music, which in turn influenced the use of vernacular melodies, harmonies and rhythms in his music.

The audience was provided with a short “sampler” in Bartok's Romanian Dances, the most painless possible introduction to his supposedly difficult style. Short but quaintly rhythmic, these miniatures brought out some excellent solo playing from the clarinet, piccolo and concertmaster Chan Yoong Han's violin. This was merely the prelude to Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra, his most popular large scale work, which showcased groups of solo instruments in virtuosic roles while being intregral parts of the orchestra.

Snippets from each of the five movements were aired alongside Ledbetter's humorous descriptions, even if spoilers related to Bartok's uproarious in-joke of the fourth movement (best appreciated by American audiences in 1944 who were then in the thrall of Shostakovich's patriotic Seventh Symphony) were divulged. Then without much ceremony, the work began.

A more experienced orchestra might have crafted a more mysterious subterranean opening, but the opening movement's themes influenced by Hungarian folk music with its use of fourths were well delineated. The chorus of brass fanfares at its climax also provided the movement's high point. Clearly this was to be a field day for both woodwinds and brass, whose prowess continued into the second movement's Game Of Couples.

Here, duets of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and trumpets playing in various fixed intervals were highlighted to best effect, alongside a sole drummer in the middle beating out rhythmic asides. The middle movement, an Elegy, was eerily evocative with the piccolo piping out its version of midnight wind, twittering insects and the call of the wild.

The fourth movement's Interrupted Intermezzo with its trite village humour and parody of Shostakovich (who himself lampooned Franz Lehar and the Nazis) was not milked for its shock value, but the intended effect would have been mostly lost on modern audiences anyway.

All the stops were pulled for the finale's perpetuum mobile, which found the strings on imperious form. Again, the driving rhythms of folk music held sway as the music barrelled its way to a brilliant finish. The various groups of soloists and chatty host were congratulated by the maestro, and judging by the applause, all who attended must had felt the concert and Ledbetter's “music lesson” could not have been better led.