In some respects you might say that all orchestral works – symphonies, overtures, tone poems — are showcases of collective talent displaying expertise in coordination, balance and deft execution of the notes. But the notion of a concerto for orchestra implies that the composer is shining an even more intense spotlight on rank-and-file players or sections of the orchestra, often demanding full evidence of their sensitivity and virtuosity. It’s likely that the best known Concerto for Orchestra is that by Béla Bartók, which he wrote in 1943. Many readers will need no introduction to this work, so today we’ll roll out six other such concertos to give a wider context to the genre.
Bartók wasn’t the first to write a Concerto for Orchestra. The Italian composer Alfredo Casella, for example, was commissioned to write one for the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1937. But most of the examples I’ve selected for this blog were written in the decades following Bartók’s beacon.
The first, by Leonard Bernstein, does maintain a connection with Bartók in its theme and variation movement, titled Mixed Doubles, that contrasts tone colours with pairs of instruments invoking the second movement of Bartók’s work. Bernstein wrote his Concerto for Orchestra ‘Jubilee Games’ for the 50th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1986. The innovative first movement, Free-Style Events, involves a greater degree of improvisation than in any other Bernstein piece, and quotes the Old Testament, from Leviticus, in which Moses says:
And Thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years… shall be unto thee forty times nine years… And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim Liberty throughout the land.
Orchestral players underscore the significance of the number seven (sheva in Hebrew) by whispering or shouting the number seven times. Later, an exclamation of hamishim (fifty) is followed by fanfare signals from the brass, imitating the motifs prescribed to the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn used to mark the fiftieth year as a holy year. Several of these fanfares are heard on pre-recorded tapes. Here is that first movement.
Free-Style Events (8.559100)
The 1980s was a good decade for concertos for orchestras. My first choice is Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits’ Concerto for Orchestra No. 3, ‘Holosinnya’ (‘Lamentations’) which was commissioned by Virko Baley, the Ukrainian-American composer, conductor and pianist, who gave the premiere of the work with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra on 29 October 1989.
For Karabits (1945-2002), with few opportunities for his music to be performed in the West, a world premiere in the United States was a highly significant event, and he used the opportunity to make a powerful, humanitarian statement arising from two terrible twentieth-century tragedies that enveloped Ukraine: first the Holodomor (or terror famine), a man-made famine perpetuated by Stalin’s policies towards Ukraine in 1932-33 when the collectivisation of agriculture was imposed, with the result that some seven million people starved to death; and secondly the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster of April 1986.
In two linked movements, the concerto’s opening pages are marvellously evocative: they feature a special percussion instrument that Karabits (with help from his then thirteen-year-old son Kirill) made with little bells woven into tresses of hair, “whose delicate chimes”, wrote Karabits, “symbolise the voices that we hear from the past…”. These delicate chimes accompany a solo horn playing a sorrowful Ukrainian folk-melody, before brass blow into their instruments without any pitch, conjuring a sensation of rustling and whispering, and continuously repeated woodwind figuration evoke a mood of anguish, against which passionate, keening lyrical lines are heard on violins and cellos, leading finally to a mournful clarinet solo. During this Largo three climaxes exploiting the battery of percussion occur, each one rising in intensity, concluding with the appearance of spine-chilling flexatones (an image here of evil authoritarianism if there ever was one). Here is that opening movement.
Largo rubato (8.572633)
The Russian composer, pianist and teacher Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) had his Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 ‘Four Russian Songs’ premiered in August 1989. As a BBC Proms commission, Shchedrin explained that “It’s not a work in black and white, but filled with vibrant colours; works for Prom audiences have to be.”
“I spent my childhood in the small Russian town of Aleksin, situated on the river Oka, 300 kilometres south of Moscow. My grandfather was an Orthodox priest there. When I was growing up, purely entertaining, commercial music was not yet as ubiquitous as it is now on television, radio, in stations, sea-ports and shops… It was still possible to hear choral songs, the sound of the accordion, the strumming of the balalaika, funeral laments, the cries of shepherds at dawn, coming from beyond a river, enveloped in fog. All that distant and now extinct musical atmosphere of a Russian province is strongly etched in my childhood memories. I think, in [the Concerto for Orchestra No. 5], it has found its own nostalgic echo.”
Here’s the concluding section of the work.
Four Russian Songs (8.572405)
On now to a Concerto for Orchestra written in 2012 by the Chinese-born composer Tan Dun (b.1957). He introduces the work as follows:
An orchestra in a composer’s hands no longer remains a standard orchestra — it becomes the orchestra of that specific composer. The same instrumentation in the hands of Bartók or Stravinsky or Debussy becomes a completely different orchestra. I have always asked myself: what is my orchestra? What is the orchestra of the future? This piece, Concerto for Orchestra, is my answer.
It evolved from a concerto of mine commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and was written with my opera Marco Polo in mind. Marco Polo took three different journeys: a geographical, musical and spiritual journey. In the first movement Light of Timespace, Marco Polo is making his spiritual journey through time and space. The brass and strings slide back and forth, much like the fading in and out of light or the dripping of ink on calligraphy paper. The sound stops, but the meaning of the notes still continues.
The second movement, Scent of Bazaar, opens to the aroma of Eastern markets with the trumpets and brass representing the spicy flavours and powerful perfumes.
With the third movement, The Raga of Desert, we hear Indian raga where every note is alive and has an infinite number of expressions. Here, I specifically focused on the blowing and bowing instruments and how they could sound like plucking instruments such as the sitar.
For the final movement, Marco Polo makes his arrival in The Forbidden City and I was trying to imagine what kind of light, colour and sound he saw and heard there.
Here’s the second movement.
Scent of Bazaar (8.570608)
Concerto for Orchestra by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) was written in an early period of his career when he ’wrote as he could, but not as he would’. It was awarded Poland’s First Class State Prize in 1955, when the country’s doctrine of socialist realism was already nearing its end. It assured him a position of the most famous Polish composer of the first half of the 1950s and, as with Bartók, it ranks as one of his most frequently performed works. Let’s hear the second of the three movements, marked Capriccio notturno ed arioso.
Capriccio notturno ed arioso (8.553779)
Christopher Rouse (1949-2019) was an American composer whose imaginative approach made him one of the most frequently performed composers during his lifetime. Written in 2008, his Concerto for Orchestra is a ‘hyper-concerto’ that challenges each player to shine to the full, not least in the final section of the work in which every member of the orchestra is kept well and truly occupied.
Concerto for Orchestra (8.559852)
I’m sure there must have been a germinating seed from Bartók’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra at the root of all the examples in this blog’s selection. We’ll go out, then, with a reminder of the finale of Bartók’s seminal work, which was one of the last pieces he composed. Mercifully, the poverty and ill health he was suffering at the time held off sufficiently for him to complete the work. Imagine the hole that would have been left if that hadn’t been the case.
Finale: Presto (8.572486)