For Kansas City Symphony's Noah Geller, There's 'Room For Imagination' In Bartók Concerto

Jan 13, 2017

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was a pianist. But some of the music Bartók wrote for strings, inspired by folk music, is considered among his most expressive and inventive. 

This weekend, Kansas City Symphony concertmaster Noah Geller will be the featured soloist in Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2. 

Geller talked to KPR's Michael Keelan about the concerto and his role with the Symphony: 

How often do you get to be soloist with the Symphony? 

"As it's happened, I get to participate in some form of solo performance every season. But, usually for one or two concerts. It's really a special opportunity every time."

And this is a mountainous opportunity of a concerto: the Bartók Second Violin Concerto, which you could almost call his violin concerto. There is that first one, but he re-used some of the music later on in something else. But this is a big concerto. It's almost 40 minutes long, but it never feels long to the listener because there's so much variety to it. Can you talk about that? 

"It is definitely a more monumental work than the first concerto, which was actually published after his death. He never heard the first concerto performed. He wrote it for a romantic interest of his from many years prior and she basically kept it in a filing cabinet until after he died, and then it was a published.     

"But the second concerto was widely considered his violin concerto, as you said. In a way, its form is rather conservative. But every time Bartók introduces a new theme, I feel like he's in a completely different sound world or a completely different character. There's just so much opportunity for imagination. And as you listen, you really have to keep an open mind. Because it's not always what you would call 'pleasant music,' but if you use your imagination, there are so many incredible scenarios that you could come up with that this music could go to. So in that way, I think this piece is going to be something that I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life in terms of figuring out new ways and new things to do with it."

Violinist Noah Geller also serves as concertmaster for the Kansas City Symphony.
Credit David Bickley

When I think about Bartók as a performer, he was a pianist, and he sort of used the nature of the piano in his music as a percussive instrument really well. Do you think he used the nature of the violin as a singing instrument in this concerto? 

"Absolutely, absolutely. Gosh, I've never quite thought of it that way. I more think of it as Bartók's, in a way, his strongest instrument that he writes for, maybe second to piano. I think some of his most amazing output is for the violin or for strings or a combination of those."  

Besides the solo violin what are some other instruments in the orchestra that get a little bit of a special notice in this concerto, or some effects that you hear? 

"That's a great question. This concerto's orchestration is exceptional, possibly the most interesting that I've ever seen in a violin concerto. But I don't want to start a big debate about that. 

"First of all, the way he writes for the orchestra while the violin is playing is such that there aren't really balance problems written in. And he uses solo winds a lot, he uses brass a lot, especially when the orchestra is tutti, and he has these big brass chorales.

"But one instrument that I think  should get a special mention that you might not think of is the harp. His harp writing is unbelievable. And he uses the celeste a lot, the percussion plays a big role."

And we'll just point out that the celeste is the '[Dance of the] Sugar Plum Fairy' instrument.

"Yeah (laughs)."

And the conductor for this concert comes from Bartók's neck of the woods, or at least his name does: Cristian Măcelaru [note: Măcelaru was born in Romania]. Have you worked with him before or has he conducted in Kansas City before?

"No, this is actually Cristi's debut in Kansas City. And I call him Cristi because we're actually friends and colleagues from Philadelphia where he was was the associate conductor [at the Philadelphia Orchestra]. And I have played many concerts with him, while I was in the orchestra. So we're good friends and it's really, I think it's going to be an amazing collaboration for me.

"I really respect his musicianship, I think he brings a lot to the table. I think his star is very much on the rise right now. And I think Kansas Citians are in for a real treat with Cristi."    

Listen to the extended KPR interview here

The Kansas City Symphony presents Kodály's Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2, featuring concertmaster Noah Geller, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5, January 13 - 15, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-471-0400.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.