By Ron Samuels
Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta is an orchestral tour de force. Its dynamism and virtuosity are a thrill for orchestras to play and audiences to hear. Among many musically distinctive features is its famously prominent first clarinet part. There are two cadenzas, one of which occurs just prior to the piece’s rousing coda. The PSO performed the work during the 1948-49 season, and the principal clarinetist at the time, Mitchell Lurie, recalled that experience vividly in an interview shortly before his passing in 2008.
The second cadenza concludes with a sustained trill in the high register, to be played very softly, slowly, diminuendo and held. Just following the trill, the entire orchestra re-enters loudly and very fast. In rehearsal, the conductor asked Mitchell to hold the trill as long as he could. Then, at the moment he would be close to running out of air, he instructed Mitchell to wink at him, signaling the instant when he could bring the orchestra back in. The esteemed conductor had led the rehearsals wearing his eyeglasses, but not in the performance, where he conducted without his score. With failing eyesight, he was unable to see Mitchell with any clarity, much less the winking of his eye. In what seemed like an eternity to Mitchell – the dual strain of running out of air and winking madly – the conductor must have sensed the panic. In the nick of time, he brought the orchestra back in to finish what certainly must have been a breathtaking performance! Oh…..the conductor? Zoltán Kodály!