When the Northwest Sinfonietta performed a concert titled “Gypsy Nights” in 2010, it was the second-best-selling event in the chamber orchestra’s history. Now, “Gypsy Nights 2” returns this weekend to Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup, with a fresh batch of dramatic Eastern European works and Bulgarian violin soloist Bella Hristova.
While some of the program has a stereotypical Gypsy flair – like Sarasate’s violin extravaganza “Zigeunerweisen” (“Gypsy Airs”) – most of it, though beautiful, actually has little to do with gypsies.
Take the Sinfonia in D by Jan Václav Voříšek. A Bohemian composer during Beethoven’s day, Voříšek is little-known, mostly because he died of tuberculosis at 34 just as his musical career was getting off the ground in Vienna. A piano prodigy, he greatly admired Beethoven – who admired his work in return – and the Sinfonia (scored for the same size orchestra as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7) is a late-classical work full of big drama, good writing and energetic tunes.
"It’s a wonderful symphony," says Sinfonietta director Christophe Chagnard, who encountered the work while organizing this program. "It’s amazing when out of the blue you find something like this that you’ve never heard of, and you say, ‘Wow.’ It’s well-crafted, with lots of beautiful themes. It’s so nice to offer the audience a symphony they don’t know which is really great."
Voříšek, coming as he did from a conventional, well-educated family (his father was a schoolmaster and organist), was hardly a gypsy – and neither was Antonín Dvořák, who grew up in a working class Czech family but went on to be a professional musician and much-lauded composer. Hristova, a Bulgarian, will play Dvořák’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, on a 1655 Amati instrument.
Pablo Sarasate, equally, was no gypsy: The Spanish violin virtuoso for whom so many now-beloved concertos were written, and who expanded violin technique (think left-hand pizzicato), heard the gypsy tunes he put into his famous “Zigeunerweisen” during travels to Hungary in 1877. One tune, in fact, was written by a local composer. And while Béla Bartók was a dedicated Hungarian ethnomusicologist who transcribed and used folk songs from much of Eastern Europe, he also was a classically trained pianist and composer who in fact separated out traditional Magyar folk music from the Gypsy category it had previously been put in. Bartók’s "Old Hungarian Dances" are another little-known item on the Sinfonietta program, arranged from the piano original and starkly raw and fierce in their rhythms and harmony.
“Gypsy Nights” does open with a gypsy dance: a traditional “Csardas” following the standard lush, slow opening, fast 2/4 and final accelerando, with a folksy sound far removed from the Romantic violin version by Vittorio Monti that many associate with the name.
Western classical composers have for many centuries pulled folk music into composed music with no hesitation, and Chagnard likewise sees no problem with expanding the idea of gypsy music into the rich colors and textures of Western orchestral compositions, united as they are by the same dramatic flair.
“The point is to convey a certain emotion that connects” you with the culture, he says. “All this music is very Slavic, very Eastern European.”