Last night we did the first night of Bartok, quartets 2,3,5. Posh, marble suite at the Rio;
cake with Bartok's portrait surrounded by holly; coffee, tea, and cider.
And such a quartet. The Colorado, four women from New York. They played the sexy tango number
in Sincity Spectacular. Maybe there are better musicians somewhere; I know there are more famous ones.
But these four creatures are so connected to their fiddles, and love this music so deeply and play it
with such knowledge, conviction, and clarity that I can't imagine a more thrilling experience.
I first fell for the Bartok quartets 25 years ago, back in Asparagus Valley days in San Francisco,
just when the Walkman had been invented. I bought them on tape and put on the headset and went downstairs
to do the laundry in our O'Farrell Street apartment building. In gray subterranean corridors with that music
right inside my brain, at the age of 31, it was just the right combination of things. At that time I was
letting go of religion and maybe Bartok's atheism was underneath the music, talking to me (he lost girlfriends
over his unfashionably frank unwillingness to believe in god).
Whatever the reason, the tunes and episodes in these quartets worked their way deep into my memory
and became things I'd listen to a couple of times a year. Sixteen years later, when visiting my folks
in Philadelphia, I saw a teeny ad for the Colorado Quartet playing the Bartok quartets at the Curtis Institute.
The show was to start twenty minutes hence. I jogged from my parents' house. I got a seat, for, I think, $7,
and listened, there in that very small, stately academic concert hall. The music absolutely flattened me.
There were connections in the music -- thoughts I could hear in their playing -- that I'd never heard in
recording. Afterwards I bluffed my way backstage as a fan-boy. Several of the quartet were P&T fans and our
Cellist Diane and I started corresponding, and even met up a couple times for Bartok structure listening lessons.
Anyway, ever since I built my house, I've had a craving to have the Colorado play in my library.
Suddenly, this fall, it worked out.The quartet detoured their holiday plans to stop in Vegas. Realizing
that there are others in Vegas, who might hunger for this music, I though I should open it to a larger
audience than my library would hold, and our boss at the Rio, Michael Weaver, a music lover and fabulously
generous guy, offered to hold this concert at one of the Rio's many-bedroomed marble-floored Palazzo suites.
The quartet would stay in the bedrooms and perform literally in their own living room.
The quartet wanted to play three Bartoks on Friday night and three Saturday afternoon.
I decided on a nutty plan to pay their expenses. I would charge a high ticket price ($125) to attend both shows.
Only fifty guests would be able to attend. I'd provide beverages and cake on Friday night and proper afternoon
tea on Saturday. I'd sell tickets to the public that really wanted to hear the music and I'd buy tickets for
my friends as gifts.
And so I found myself in a room tonight room with these wonderful musicians, Julie (1st violin),
Debbie (2nd violin), Marka (viola), and Diane (cello), playing this terribly demanding music, there,
in three dimensions of flesh, wood, and gut.
When you see this music as well as hear it, a lot becomes clear. First, of course,
if previously you've just heard recordings, you can easily tell who is playing what.
And in this music, that's important, because Bartok often has one instrument finish another's thoughts,
and notes bounce around the foursome like a ping-pong ball. He also has the musicians doing just about anything
to get sounds out of their machines: strumming, plucking normally, plucking so hard the string hits the board,
whacking the strings with every part of the bow. Virtuosity you can take for granted on a recording knocks you
on your ass when you see a person fretting so fast her fingers blur, while bowing and strumming in lunatic
time signatures. So there really is a theatrical aspect to these pieces that is part of the music.
There's also a lot of humor in the music. It's pretty deadpan, but when you see the twinkle in the musician's
eye, you feel more confident being amused. Fortunately, the Colorado likes talking about the music they're
playing, and that can help you hear things that might slide by unnoticed.
After they'd played the first selection, Quartet #2, Diane asked the maintenance people to come in and turn
off a refrigerator that was rattling in the background. Many people took this break as a first intermission.
Then the quartet continued with #3, which I love for its hummable, elegaic twelve-tonish theme that gets turned
every which way. I also like that it's played without pauses between movements, which gives it a lot of force.
I wasn't paying attention to a lot of the audience during the music, but I noticed that Johnny Thompson,
who was reading the sheet music over Julie's shoulder and who couldn't help tapping a foot to those pulsing
Hungarian rhythms. There was also a thin man who knew the material inside out, got every musical joke and
just glowed with a smile.
After #3 we took the formal intermission with the players all eating Bartok cake with everybody.
Diane and Penn talked animatedly about playing bass instruments. After a 25 minute break, we returned
for #5. Diane talked a little about #5's structure, five movements in a symmetrical arch, then they started in.
To me the killer of #5 is the Scherzo, the way it scampers dazzlingly from episode to episode,
simultaneously a classical scherzo and one of those superfast intricate Hungarian folk dances in
an impossible time signature, that builds to shrieks then wryly slips away with a shrug.
At some point, during a section Bartok designates as "nightmusic" there was a cricket in the background
to whose rhythm Diane (as she told me later) tried to match her trills.
Afterwards, when everybody but me left, the quartet sat around and traded their music history stories
for my magic history stories. They're a bit amazed that Bartok wrote so little, for one of such international
stature. No symphonies, unless you count the "Concerto for Orchestra." He seemed to think of his folk and
musicological research as his day job, with composition as more of a lark. The quartet compared their relative
indifference to Shostakovich's fifteen relatively uniform quartets to Bartok's vividly individual six. It was
fun hearing the quartet kvetching about Shostakovich and singing its favorite passages of Bartok. They
remarked also that it was weird and fun for them to be playing so very close to listeners breathing down their
This morning Krasher told me that after hearing the first selection, #2, which ends in harrowing gloom,
he was drained and wondering how the quartet could play anything else after that. His remark,
"That's a roller-coaster I won't be up to taking again for a while." I thought it was rather nice
that to somebody really listening, something written in 1917 could still rip you apart.