Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony invite us to an interesting performance this week – one that features works by two contrasting composers – Béla Bartók and Hector Berlioz. The guest artist is piano virtuoso Jeremy Denk who plays the Bartók Piano Concerto No 2 – which he recently played during this year’s BBC Proms season – and the work by Berlioz is his epic Symphonie fantastique.
Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, and recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Jeremy Denk is known as one of America’s foremost pianists, and “one of the most respected pianists on the planet” according to artsBHAM. He has toured widely across the United States and in the United Kingdom, and appeared with some of Europe’s finest orchestras, including, recently, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Mr Denk is described by The New York Times as “….. a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination – both for his penetrating intellectual engagement with the music and for the generosity of his playing“.
Bartók wrote his two piano concertos during what are considered his most productive years – the two decades following the end of World War I. The First Piano Concerto was written in 1926, and the Second in 1931, although it wasn’t premiered until January 23, 1933. This performance took place in Frankfurt, with the composer as soloist, and is notable for the fact that this was Bartók’s last appearance in Germany before the rise of Nazism, which was responsible for his departure from Europe for the United States in 1940. The work is described by AllMusic as one of Bartók’s “more accessible compositions for performers and audiences alike”, but it’s certainly no less challenging for that. From the opening bars, you’re left in no doubt that you’re in for a thrilling display of dazzling virtuosity – from both composer and soloist.
Berlioz referred to his Symphonie fantastique as his “descriptive” symphony – which is probably putting it very mildly. It’s a dramatic and expressive work, and – bearing the title Symphonie fantastique: épisode de la vie d’un artiste – is known to be autobiographical, since it portrays a series of dreams about a failed love affair. At the time of writing the symphony, Berlioz had apparently fallen in love – at a distance – with the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he ultimately married. The marriage, however, didn’t last. The Symphonie fantastique premiered in Paris on December 5, 1830, contributing greatly to the reputation which Berlioz acquired as one of the most progressive composers of his time.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program of music by Béla Bartók – with guest artist Jeremy Denk – and Hector Berlioz, on September 28 and 30, and October 1. For more information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (Béla Bartók)
Encyclopaedia Britannica (Hector Berlioz)
San Francisco Symphony program notes: