Berkshire Symphony season opener carries Bartok's last message to the world

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1943 premiere of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, it's often recalled, gave the seriously ill Bartok the courage to go on living and composing. The concerto went on to become standard repertory for most orchestras, including the BSO.

In its opening program of the season, the Berkshire Symphony tonight will recall a sequel to that famous premiere. Bartok's Viola Concerto, his final work, unfinished at his death in 1945, will be at the center of a program that opens and closes with two concert staples, Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. Hsin-Yun Huang will be the soloist, and director Ronald Feldman will conduct the mixed student-professional orchestra at 8 in Williams College's Chapin Hall.

The Bartok concerto is one of the few works, along with Berlioz' "Harold in Italy," for viola solo and orchestra. Feldman says the performance grows out of his collaboration with the same soloist in the work last year with his Longwood Symphony in Boston. Bartok, he points out, was a great admirer of Debussy, whose "Faun" precedes him on the Williams program.

But why the "Pathetique," well worn from frequent use?"We continue to attract conservatory-quality students to Williams," Feldman replied in an email. "When I put together the year of concerts, I always try to program pieces the students should have an opportunity to play in the four years at Williams."

That, he said, is why you'll see the Tchaikovsky Sixth on this program and the Beethoven Sixth (Pastoral") and the Shostakovich Fifth on subsequent programs. "These standards don't always mesh with other pieces on the program," he said, but "I try to create interesting pairings on all of the programs when the pieces don't have relevant associations."

Bartok, then living in New York in exile from Hungary, was depressed and dying of leukemia when the commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the Concerto for Orchestra arrived. Buoyed by the successful premiere, he went on to the three later works, composing the Viola Concerto for the celebrated violist William Primrose.

The composer died un 1945 three weeks after optimistically telling Primrose that the piece was ready in draft form. It was not so easy. The "draft" consisted of 15 unnumbered manuscript pages giving only bare indications. It took Tibor Serly, Bartok's friend and musical executor, two years to decipher the notations and work out a performing version.

Huang, the Berkshire soloist, first won attention as the gold medalist in the 1988 Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition. A native of Taiwan, she received degrees from the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School. A love of the Haydn quartets inspired her to play the viola. She now serves on the faculties of Juilliard and Curtis. She is married to violist Misha Amory of the Brentano String Quartet. They live in New York City with their two children, Lucas and Leah.                                                                                                                        

Looking ahead, the second of the Berkshire's four programs, on Nov. 17, is a mostly American one featuring Yevgeny Kutik, a Pittsfield High School graduate who has gone on to a national career, as soloist in the Barber Violin Concerto. Other composers on the program are Honegger, Piston and Gershwin.                                                                                                                                            

In a March 2, 2018, program, five Williams instrumental instructors will team as soloists in Haydn's Sinfonia concertante. The program also includes the premiere of a piano concerto by faculty member Zachary Wadsworth, with his colleague Doris Stevenson as soloist. Beethoven's "Pastoral" rounds out the program. It will be ideal for a repeat in the family concert the next afternoon, Feldman said.                                                                                                                                                      

"It tells a story that will inspire the young students in surrounding schools to draw pictures we will display on a screen above the orchestra."                                                                                          

The season closer, on April 20, features the winners of the orchestra's student soloist competition. Bernstein's "Candide" Overture will be a contribution to the Bernstein centenary celebrations. The Shostakovich Fifth closes the program.


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