This afternoon I attended a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I don’t have a subscription this year, so this was the first concert I went to this season. It was a mixed bag.

The last few years that I had a subscription I had box seats that were in the Second Tier behind the orchestra. While this distorted the sound very slightly, it did give me a view of the conductor’s face and I could see most of the players fairly close up. And as I was reminded today as I took my seat in the Orchestra section, there was nobody behind me to cough all the way through the performance.

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A few minutes before the performance as the Philadelphia Orchestra is warming upA few minutes before the performance as the Philadelphia Orchestra is warming up

A few minutes before the performance as the Philadelphia Orchestra is warming up

The first work was one of my favorites by one of my favorite composers, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. When I came to Philadelphia in 1980, one of my very first concerts featured Eugene Ormandy conducting that work (a treasured memory), and I’ve heard it played at least a couple times since, most recently in 2014 under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. Today Salonen gave it another terrific performance; I just wish the coughers could have held off just a little bit longer to let the final pianissimo notes (marked ppp in the score) sound without competition. The perils of the live performance.

After intermission came two works by Béla Bartók. I have to confess, as far as I’m concerned, Bartók’s works can be divided into the Concerto for Orchestra and everything else.

I have always thought that Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in a deliberately easily accessible style, and I think he’s pandering to the audience, so I’ve never really been able to love it like so many others do. Yes, a performance can be enjoyable. But it’s a piece I tire of very easily.

Then there’s everything else.

For example, today’s pieces, the Viola Concerto, performed by Choon-Jin Chang, and the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.

They just don’t sound like music to me.

Let me explain.

Of course, they are music. I’m using a very loose definition when I say they don’t sound like music. What I mean is as far as I’m concerned, if the orchestra had played a bunch of musical notes that had been randomly generated by a computer instead of the notes that Bartók presumably painstakingly notated on his score, I feel I would not have been able to tell the difference. There just didn’t seem to be any coherence or logic to the series of notes. And I’ve listened to these pieces in advance, in the case of the concerto, many times.

And it’s not just these pieces. I’ve tried listening to his opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, several times in several different recordings, and I attended the concert performance a couple years ago that Yannick conducted with the Philadelphians. That opera leaves me cold.

I’ve listened to Bartók’s string quartets, his second Violin Concerto, his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and a number of other pieces. Many times.

The only works of his that sound like music are the third movement of the Viola Concerto and the opening of the second Violin Concerto. Everything else sounds like random gibberish to me.

I guess I have to conclude that Bartók’s music is just not for me.

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