Perfectly Unsexy

Near-Perfection from Orchestre Métropolitan in Bartok and Nielsen

NICOLAS ELLIS. Credit Ludovic Rolland-Marcotte NICOLAS ELLIS. Photo credit Ludovic Rolland-Marcotte

A long time ago in the academic galaxy of a Doctorate in Music that is now far, far away, I was required to analyze a movement from Bela Bartok’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. The perfectly symmetrical structural arc the piece followed was the thing that jumped out at me : 4 intro measures, then 23 measures with a first theme, then 38 measures with a middle theme, then another 23 measures with the first theme modified and a final 4 concluding measures. Short-longer-loooong-longer-short. Nice and tidy with a climax right in the middle.

I mentioned this to an extremely wise, musicology-dropout friend, who wrote back “he did sort of invent the arch form… in the concerti it’s always the slow middle section interrupted by a jigue.” “Concerti” refers to the 3 piano concertos which all have incredibly juicy slow movements, movements that are centered by said “jigue” (i.e. dance-like) interruptions.

The point of mentioning this is to frame the piece that is the reason for half of this review: Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that, according to our Wikipedia Underlords is “one of his best-known, most popular, and most accessible works.” I’d say the Underlords went 0 for 3 in that summary blurb: after 20 years of highly professional classical music training, I had never heard the piece until last Saturday night’s concert. Part of this is on me and my lack of erudition, but if it was truly all that popular, all that known, all that accessible, someone would have sat me down, at some point, and forced me to listen to it. Jeezus.

Like the movement I had analyzed with an imaginary gun to my head ages ago, the Concerto for Orchestra’s 5 movements follow a symmetrical structural arc, of which my dropout friend said: the Bartok arch form works way better with 5 movements. Two jigues with a money slow movement in the middle, rather than a slow movement interrupted by a jigue. The “money slow movement in the middle” of the Concerto for Orchestra was written in Bartok’s Nacthmusik style (i’ll let you take a guess for the translation): creepy, haunting, dreamy/nightmarish ambience with mostly unresolved tension building throughout. Kubrick used a bunch of it in The Shining.

Which leads me to propose a highly unprofessional theory of one source for the impressive sexlessness of Bartok’s music, music that can sound austere but never gives up the tension of tonality and recognizable tune. The sexyness (or lack thereof) of classical music is a hard thing to nail down – why does some of it sound sensual, titillating and some of it not? Well, I have a thought: the typical momentum-building structure of a piece follows the arc of a cannonball – a slow and steady rise to a great height, then a steep descent while we ride the high of the blast. It’s a buildup that mirrors an orgasm. But Bartok was no conjuror of cheap tricks and the arc structure, a Bartok fetish, shuns the trick of the orgasmic cannonball. In its place he provides the less titillating pleasure of symmetry and dares us to get our kicks in a different way. Bartok’s music never resorts to musical Pick-Up Artistry.

I couldn’t defend it in front of a Dissertation Jury, but after a couple pints at least half of my musical friends would probably pat me on the back and agree that I was on to something with that last paragraph. Brilliant musicology dropout friend also wrote “if Bartok hadn’t named the piece “Concerto”, it would be considered one of the best symphonies of the 20th century.” Christ. Discovering a gem hiding in plain sight after being trained to listen to the GREAT PIECES OF CLASSICAL MUSIC for 20-odd years happens about zero-times-per-forever. So I headed with a fellow musical nerd and friend to the Maison Symphonique figuring I was in for a rare treat with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.


Before making it to the Concerto-that-would-be-considered-one-of-the-best-symphonies-of-the-20th-century-if-it-wasn’t-called-Concerto, the issue of Carl Nielsen needs to be considered. Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, completed by Carl with great difficulty, made up the first half of the concert. And unfortunately, Nielsen got the order (and proportions) of things wrong. If the piece’s four movements must be retained, it would be better for the second movement to end the piece and for the finale – an awkward 10-ish minutes that tries to be playful but ends up sounding like Vikings dancing without having sucked back quite enough mead – to be hidden in the second or third spot.

Were he to have simply cut the piece’s 3rd and 4th movements, we would be left with an extremely pleasant, 20-odd minute piece that makes no great demands on the orchestra and lets a soloist absolutely rip, asking them for particularly graceful phrasing and the ability to make some outrageous bits of virtuosity sounds casual and inviting. For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth much) the piece officially has two, two-part movements (but you just know we’ll get four separate tracks every time it’s recorded; so let’s just pretend it’s a four-movement piece).

As it stands, we’re stuck with almost 40 minutes of music, with the finale acting as an anti-anti-climax that demands more from the audience than the musicians. And to their credit, the listeners at La Maison Symphonique applauded warmly at the end of the second movement, the point where the piece should end. If we were to limit the concerto to its first two movements, classical insiders might be able to pull an plagiaristico-detective pleasure (or could we call it remix virtuosity awareness?) from the listening:

The 15 seconds beginning here might as well be Sibelius (listen to the 10 seconds beginning here).

The 12 seconds beginning here might as well be Mendelssohn (listen to the 15 seconds+ beginning here).

The 5 seconds beginning here might as well be Paganini (listen to… pretty much any Paganini cadenza or caprice).

There are also passages derived from Brahms (see the first movement’s final 80 seconds) and passages that sound like Nielsen had managed to hear and channel Bartok.

For the aficionado listening for originality, this can be both reassuring (see how erudite I am!) and dispiriting; is any of this ORIGINAL? Is it possible that a highly sophisticated, well-paid orchestra is inviting me to review a piece that isn’t a Great, Original, Trailblazing work of genius?

But originality is overrated. Written around the same period when Bartok was discovering the Impressionists (was he being original in allowing himself to be influenced by them?), Nielsen couldn’t cue up infinite versions of canonical pieces performed on Spotify to cross-check his unconscious inspiration. Forget originality – managing to be influenced by other Great Composers was often a question of travelling via train to visit actual people, of waiting for a local orchestra to squeak out a half-decent version of a piece written less than 100 years ago, or of hammering your own way through a piano transcription, for better and for worse. The final movement of Nielsen’s violin concerto is the most original, by far. It’s also the most tedious. The best bits from the first and second movements are remixes of canonical violin concerti that preceded his. Originality, especially in a pre-digital age, was a question of being out of touch. And originality is still overrated today – it has become our fetish in the ongoing attempt to scoop up some of the wealth the attention economy promises. But over a hundred years ago, it was irrelevant. Writing great pieces was about ripping the great pieces off without getting caught (and who, besides a few cogniscenti, could ever call you out when almost everybody only ever heard a piece once-at-a-time?).

Nielsen’s violin concerto might not be a capitalized Great Piece, but the Orchestra Metropolitain backed up the night’s soloist, their concertmaster Yukari Cousineau, in a mostly Great Performance. Yes the last movement went pointlessly on and on, yes the second movement provided too much satisfaction too quickly, but golfer Sam Snead was right in saying You gotta dance with who ya brung. Nielsen was the dreamer we were dancing with for half of this musical evening, and the pleasure of the dance was guaranteed by violinist Cousineau’s utter inability to play an ugly phrase, her inability to sound rushed, her inability to be anything but extremely graceful no matter how rigorous the technical demands placed on her bow. There were moments in the final movement when the soloist was zigging as the orchestra zagged (this happened almost every time ithe first six notes of the main theme were played) but taken as a whole, this was an interpretation coated in honey, played with an energy that was consistently sunny. It would have been nice if, at times, Nielsen could have been made to sound a bit more (wait for it) funny, but the orchestra provided a warm, fat-sounding accompaniment – sonic love handles that made dancing easier – and their backing up Yukari Cousineau’s astonishingly beautiful sound made for a version of this piece that was about as good as it gets.


When (finally!), Nicolas Ellis stepped onto the podium to conduct Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I gave him a good staredown and beheld one of the few Made Men in Québécois classical music; he has won a host of important prizes and has carried out an incredible amount of idealistic work through his conducting (if his biography isn’t bluffing, I won’t be seeing much of him in the after-life after he goes Straight-To-Heaven). And, by all accounts, he kicks ass on the podium.

But I was also beholding Nico, a guy I’ve hung out with maybe 9 or 10 times, a guy who has often come across as too-good-to-be-true: kind without being inhibited, fun and funny without being cruel, good-looking, aware of the vibe in the room and sharp-as-fuck. Critical rigor is supposed to kick in at this point in the paragraph with the expected but actually… But I’ll just let that first sentence be. And instead of opposing my social impression with some dark truth about Nico, I’ll try to link up my impression of Nicolas Ellis the social, off-podium creature, with Saturday night’s conductor: everything was carefully guided, rigorously prepared, almost perfectly polished. Ellis’ Bartok was thrilling but never felt out of control. I kept feeling that he was caressing the music (and this isn’t music that is easily caressed), coaxing it out of the orchestra. His leadership came without intimidation. If we didn’t live in a world where this might rub some people the wrong way, I’d write that his manner had something strong, maternal and reassuring about it (oops).

My listening partner for the evening, a guy who once studied with the same impossibly-sought-after piano teacher I did, said (after he had jumped out of his seat to ovate the ending of the Bartok) “Clean, crisp, so many incredible colours. And so, so solid.” He did my job nicely.

One of the potential thrills of moving to hear live music (even a classical concert) is hearing and feeling the darker urges in our nature find expression in sound channelled through gestures, gestures taking place close enough to feel like you might reach out and touch or be touched by them. Which is why I think there might be a link worth making between my admiration for Bartok’s sexless-yet-thrilling writing and the little itch that remained unscratched by the end of this concert, this exceedingly suave, elegant, well thought-out and executed concert. Some people – me, at least – like it rough every now and then. Nico’s Bartok, admirably, had not a single rough edge. The roughest moment of the evening, in fact, came when he was congratulating the orchestra for their performance, gesturing with both hands as if he was trying to strangle a stubborn giraffe. In my dreamworld there would have been a bit more of this ruthlessly friendly violence in the gestures and sounds he and the orchestra produced, even if it came at the expense of some of the performance’s polish.

But here I go getting greedy; if your only complaint after spending an evening with a group of people pleausuring you is that it wasn’t violent enough, you’re doing pretty goddamned well. And besides, getting exactly what you think you want, in the way you think you want it, is overrated. What would there be to talk and write about if such immaculate transactions were actually possible?

Review of “Concertos en Double”, Saturday, March 26th, 7:30 pm

Performance by Orchestre Métropolitain, featuring conductor Nicolas Ellis and violin soloist Yukari Cousineau performing Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concert and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

1 Comment on Perfectly Unsexy

  1. Anonymous // April 1, 2022 at 3:07 pm //

    Wonderful writing-insightful,funny,erudite(yes I)I love this critique

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About Conor Coady

Conor is a musician and writer. Some of his content can be found at Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts