Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lunch with Bartók

Today's Noontime Concerts™ in San Francisco concert consisted entirely of the music of Béla Bartók played by members of the Laurel Ensemble. Pianist Lori Lack accompanied flautist Sarah Holzman in a performance of the Suite Paysanne Hongroise, an arrangement of piano settings of Hungarian folk songs. This was followed by Contrasts, in which Lack, playing music that Bartók had composed for himself, was joined by clarinetist Ann Lavin, playing the part of Benny Goodman, and violinist Christina Mok, playing the part of Joseph Szigeti. (I drop these names because the work was conceived with them in mind.) When this was performed last May by San Francisco Conservatory students, I wrote the following about the music:

Contrasts are everywhere to be found, from the large scale differences across the three movements to the variety of acoustic effects elicited by each instrument and the ways in which these acoustic differences are combined. By way of introduction, we were told that Bartók never particularly liked Goodman; and it is easy enough to see that Bartók might not have taken very well to Goodman's approach to swing (if not to swing in general). In my personal fantasies Bartók suffered the tragedy of being to early for the jazz that would have meant something to him. With his keen ear for recording Hungarian folk music, he probably would have felt more at home with the improvisations of Charlie Parker; and, had he lived long enough, he would have appreciated the effort John Coltrane made to play along with a recording of the introduction to the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (from which Coltrane learned the value of wide intervals, which he would then exercise in "Giant Steps"). Whatever the hardships surrounding its composition, however, Contrasts is still a great sonic adventure, giving the ear a roller coaster ride through its contrasts on so many different scales of magnitude; and the Conservatory students did an excellent job of meeting the challenges of this piece, which really deserves to be performed more often.

Any tension that may have existed between Goodman and Bartók was absent in the relationship between Lavin and Lack. Indeed, Lavin summoned up a variety of brash sounds that were about as remote as one could get from Goodman's brand of swing (but right at home with both Bird and Trane), entirely consistent with Bartók's particular brand of rhetoric, which could be vulgar without necessarily being offensive. Thus, the roller coaster was still there; and Mok was equally at home on it, particularly when she launched into the sort of cadenza in the final movement that Trane himself, with his habit of trying to learn new licks from recordings, would have been tempted to acquire. The opening suite was a bit more on the tame side, although every now and then Holzman caught on to the folk spirit with her own bursts of energy. Since the last time I heard Bartók's music, it was a link in a chain that ran from Ernő von Dohnányi to György Kurtág, I appreciated the opportunity to hear him dominate an entire program!

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