Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to the Church of Bartok

Bartok Harmony, Opaque watercolor and Cray-pas, 8 x 10"

Growing up, my family belonged to the Unitarian-Universalist Church. At some point, after I had started playing the viola, a small instrumental (mostly/entirely strings?) ensemble was formed. It was called Bartok's in honor of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). The thinking at that time (the mid to late '60s) was that Bartok was under-appreciated. Our leader was Dr. Wagner, a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky. He had high hopes for our little band. I remember him becoming very angry with his son, Russell, our cellist, who went on to become a luthier in the Chicago area. I had only 2-3  years of experience on the viola under my belt and the music of Bartok (which naturally, was featured) was way beyond my skill-set. My older brother, also a violist, was part of the ensemble. He was more adept. We carried on, no doubt propelled by Jenny Wagner, who went on to be the Assistant Concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony. Meanwhile, I muddled through and had great anticipation for what would follow the Friday practice session--our weekly spaghetti supper!

     So imagine my excitement when I learned that our local chamber music society would be sponsoring a concert by the Daedalus String Quartet including Bartok's String Quartet No. 3. And, since they are trying out new venues this year, it would be at the U-U Church. I would be able to actually hear Bartok's music in my old haunt. It would be my chance to hear the argument for Bartok within the decagonal confines of my youth. 
      We arrived on a cold, but sunny afternoon. When the the church was built, it was way out in the country. Now, you have to watch carefully for the turn. It comes up quickly after the houses end in a concentrated suburbia. The church provides a welcome green space in the midst of development. The trees and arbors have been growing for decades and are taking on an ancient quality. The sanctuary space remains decagonal, but where we had sort of a theater-in-the-round quality to the worship space, there is now a modest rise in the altar area. This was the "stage". The musicians walked up from the lobby area in the back to take the stage. 

     The concert began with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1. Now, I have actually worked on this quartet with the Fauve Five, but that is another story. Before playing Bartok's String Quartet No. 3, the cellist, Thomas Kraines* gave us a little back story. He explained that Bartok's first three quartets are considered "difficult." The harmonies were different for their time and perhaps, still so.  But, the listener can always hear the folk melodies, on which the composition is structured, by listening to the first violin. I kept that in mind as the four beautiful musicians began. I was listening for what had prompted Dr. Wagner to hold Bartok in such high regard. The music is highly textured. There are bits of folklife emerging, but also a surround of dissonance, almost. Ah, there it is. Bartok is the composer for the church of my youth. The Unitarians (as I thought of us) wanted to hang their faith on an easy yoke of tradition and ritual (folk tunes) and all around would be individual voices, which are uniquely harmonious in their sense of freedom. This reminds me of a quip I used to make about the U-U church: most people believe that their faith is the only true one, Unitarians believe that they alone, as individuals,  are correct. I learned something important at this concert. It is not the individual, it is a community of individuals, happy to be together in this warm, but slightly wild world, feeling free, but so contentedly tethered to the common melody. 

The view outside of the decagonal
      Thank you to the Daedalus Quartet for such a satisfying concert. Every member was excellent in their performance and uniquely beautiful (like Unitarians!) What a warm presence on a cold afternoon. Loveliness abounded both inside and out. The setting and the music were perfect!

* David "googled" Thomas Kraines and learned that both his parents are mathematicians. His father is an Algebraic Topologist (Emeritus) as is David.

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