The Return of Andre Watts, Jan Jezioro, Artvoice

André Watts developed an early reputation as one of the most exciting American classical concert pianists, and he has managed to maintain that reputation for over a half a century. At 8pm this Saturday, February 20 and at 2:30pm on Sunday February 21, BPO music director JoAnn Falletta will be on the podium in Kleinhans Music Hall to lead the orchestra in what may well be the most ideally balanced program of the season.

Leonard Bernstein, the charismatic music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who probably did more than any other conductor to expand the audience for classical music in America in the post World War II era, selected the then 16 year old pianist to perform Liszt’s Concerto in E-flat for his debut with the New York Philharmonic in their Young People’s Concerts, broadcast nationwide on CBS-TV. Two weeks later, Bernstein asked Watts to substitute at the last minute for the ailing Glenn Gould in performances of the same concerto at a pair of New York Philharmonic subscription series concerts, and in effect launching his career in a manner worthy of a traditional Hollywood bio film.

Buffalo classical music audiences have been privileged to hear Watts perform many times, both as a soloist with the BPO, and in recital, most notably on the much-missed former QRS series, and it’s also defunct successor, the Ramsi P. Tick Concert series. Watts has experienced some medical issues in the last few decades, which have resulted in some unfortunate, last minute performance cancellations, most notably for his RP Tick recital, which was cancelled twice, causing at least a few local classical music lovers to consider giving up their Andre Watts fan club memberships. Not to worry, the third time proved to be a charm, with Watts delivering the kind of high voltage, but still incredibly controlled, all-Liszt program, the calling card that earned him his reputation.

Andre Watts will be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, the most poetic of his five concertos for piano and orchestra, a work that he has not previously performed here in his long association with the orchestra. The second half of the program will feature Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s last symphonic masterpiece, his brilliant and sonically irresistible 1943 Concerto for Orchestra. The concert will open with Samuel Barber’s vivid Overture to “The School for Scandal.” Composed in 1933 when Barber was finishing his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, it was his first work for orchestra, and it manages to successfully capture the brittle comic spirit of Richard Sheridan’s witty Restoration play.

Over the last half century, Leonard Pennario, Clifford Curzon, Christoph Eschenbach, Alicia de Larrocha, Eugene Istomin, Jeffrey Kahane, Emanuel Ax, Louis Lortie and William Wolfram have all performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the BPO. It would be difficult to assemble a more distinguished roster of international piano soloists, so what is it about this particular concerto that continues to appeal to pianists? Before the tragic loss of his hearing, Beethoven was a commanding pianist who enjoyed wide popularity and had a strong sense of the concerto form as a kind of theater. Up until he composed this concerto, virtually all piano concertos had started with an orchestral introduction, but here, Beethoven stood this convention on its head, by letting the soloist begin to play unaccompanied, a dramatic masterstroke that was not emulated by any other composer until the 20th century. The opening movement continues along a strikingly original path, culminating in an unexpected cadenza beginning in what Michael Steinberg describes as “a blatantly ‘wrong’ key” and “most audiences usually don’t believe that it is really by Beethoven.” The renowned British musicologist D.F. Tovey wrote that it was Liszt himself who compared the slow movement of this concerto to “Orpheus taming the wild beast with his music,” and if there has subsequently been some question as to the attribution of this quote, the spirit is nevertheless indisputably true. The sublimely evocative dream spell is ultimately broken in the final Rondo movement, when trumpets and drums make their first appearance in what Steinberg describes as “a charmingly oblique, Haydnesque approach” to the finale.

Bartók composed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 in America, revising it just before his death from leukemia in 1946. Bartók had strongly opposed the rise of Nazi Germany, and his anti-fascist views had caused him great difficulties in his native Hungary when that country decided to side with Germany. Reluctantly, he immigrated to the United States in 1940, but as his music was not well known here he experienced economic difficulties in addition to developing the illness that ultimately caused his death. The Russian composer Serge Koussevitzky, who was also the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, offered Bartók a commission for the Concerto for Orchestra when the composer was in a hospital bed, and subsequently premiered the work to great success with his orchestra on December 1, 1944, the work remaining highly popular ever since.

If you didn’t know the story behind the composition of the Concerto for Orchestra, it would be impossible to guess that it was composed by someone who was seriously ill. While concertos usually feature a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment, Bartók’s work treats whole sections of instruments as virtuosic soloists. The composer makes highly effective use of his lifelong study of folk music, combining it with traditional western classical elements to create a uniquely engaging orchestral work that BPO music director JoAnn Falletta has vividly brought to life in previous performances. In short, do not miss this concert.