Bartok in Minneapolis

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Monday, December 2, 2019

On today's date in 1949, Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis was the venue for the world premiere performance of Béla Bartók's last orchestral piece: his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. The soloist was William Primrose, who had commissioned the work, with the Hungarian-born conductor Antal Dorati leading the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Bartók had died in 1945, leaving extensive but incomplete sketches for the concerto he was writing for Primrose. After his death, the Viola Concerto was completed and orchestrated by Bartók's friend and fellow Hungarian, Tibor Sérly, who had also put the finishing touches on Bartók's Third Piano Concerto, which also premiered posthumously.

The 1949 premiere of the Viola Concerto in Minneapolis attracted worldwide attention. To the surprise of some, it also went over very well with its first-night audience at Northrop Auditorium.

At the dress rehearsal, Dorati had predicted as much: "This is one time the audience need have no qualms about the word 'contemporary' as applied to the music it's about to hear." Dorati's view was that the public was finally catching up with Bartók's highly original idiom. "It's not a case of a composer becoming famous because he is dead," said Dorati. "It is true there has been a great surge of performances of Bartók's music since his death, but that is because the public was ready to hear his music."