The second day of the Colorado Quartet Bartok marathon, everybody took for granted the experience
of listening to a string quartet in a palatial living room, while eating nice snacks, and generally
living the high life. So they could concentrate on the music.
In addition to all our regular friends (except jugglers, who were now at a serious convention down the street),
Clint Holmes brought his lovely English opera-singer mom, and Bill Fayne, Clint's fabulous music director came
along.Penn's bass teacher, master player Morrie Louden came with a friend. There were lots of individuals
and couples passionate about their chamber music, and ten students from the UNLV composition program.
Glenn told me two people who had bought tickets came late to the tea/reception (they didn't understand the
schedule correctly) and stomped away in a huff because they were more interested in having a full hour of
snacks and socializing than the music. I have to give them credit: at least they know what they want.
Glenn, always attuned to the social graces, had bought four bouquets of roses to present to the members
of the quartet at the end. I distributed these to four guys in the front row, who hid them under their
satin-draped seats in the front row.
Amply sated with tea, coffee, scones, cream, sandwiches, and very gingery gingerbread men,
we sat down to hear the last three quartets.
The first quartet was #1, written in 1908, the year my mother was born. It's actually the first quartet
Bartok allowed to survive (the real first was a student work that embarrassed him so much he destroyed it.)
The program notes acknowledge it as very Romantic and relatively conventional. The fifteen-year-old violist
next to me said to his dad at the end, "They played that very Romantically."
And indeed it is Romantic. It's got lush, violet melodies and richly dissonant harmonies. But it also
has that quality I love in art: it makes you feel like you're being led through the Psycho house of somebody
Midway through the second movement second violinist Debbie had a peg slip and her instrument became unplayable.
"Damn dry climate," she laughed. "Your violin has Vegas Throat," said Johnny Thompson, which brought down the
house. That laugh filled the room with fresh energy, as Debbie fixed her instrument and the quartet resumed.
Strange that a problem, an interruption, a flaw should suddenly make everybody so comfortable and even readier
to feel the pleasure of listening.
The second piece played was the last piece Bartok completed, #6, from 1939 (there was a sketch for #7 at the
time of his death). Debbie, the second violonist, introduced it by talking about how Bartok's ambition was to get so inside
Hungarian folk music that he could write "art music" that didn't quote or simulate folk tunes, but actually
created within that sensibility. She also said Bartok loved collecting bugs wherever he went to collect musical
snippets. That said, the quartet launched into the piece.
Each of the four movements of #6 start mesto, sad. In the first three, the mesto is followed by a lively,
witty, sometimes downright funny movement. But the last reiteration of the mesto has no happy ending.
It's beyond sad, slow-breathing, dry, dead. But in the last chords there's a glow of something -- forgiveness
or consolation. It's breathtaking. When the quartet finished, fully eight or nine seconds elapsed before the
audience could bring itself to applaud.
After more snacks (and the Quartet ate its share of fine pastry), first violinist Julie talked a bit about
the five-movement arch structure of Quartet #4. Boy, I like it when musicians talk, especially when they tell
you things that help you with unfamiliar forms. Julie pointed out that the first and last movements are
connected thematically; that the second and fourth are both scherzo movements -- she asked if anybody could
translate "scherzo" and the fifteen year old violist shot up his hand, and said, "Joke." The third movement
is the slow, serious centerpiece that anchor all the ideas as a keystone.
Then they started playing. This piece is a killer. It's the Oxford English Dictionary of ways to make noise
with a fiddle. You have to do everything perfectly and really, really fast or really, really expressively and
often one after the other or at the same time, and in rhythms that your blood recognizes but that don't come
anywhere within miles of a nice orderly three, four, or five. At times this piece sounds like Mrs. Bates
murdering Marion Crane intercut with a village full of Baltic line-dancers in heavy boots. Then it pauses
for a short dirge and tiptoes into a hoedown of ambulances. With all the contrasts, the piece nevertheless
flows naturally, almost story-like.
The fourth movement is all pizzicato. The players put their bows away and pluck and strum and twang their
way through an amiably demonic foot-tapping intricate canon. Being there in the room and watching the melody
and accents bouncing back and forth from player to player across the quartet left the listeners so giddy that
a little ripple of laughs ran through the audience after the last note. The Colorado really excels at the
witty stuff. It's just so clear they're having a blast.
The finale pulled the audience and me to our feet in one of the half-dozen standing ovations I've ever
willingly been party to. Flower givers whipped out their flowers and cameras flashed.
Afterwards everybody was pretty much wrecked with the pleasure of the thing. "I've been a musician
and an arranger all my life," said Johnny Thompson, shaking his head, as though dislodging loose pizzicato
notes from his hair, "but I could never do *that*."
Morrie Louden, Penn's virtuoso bass teacher and deeply demanding listener wrote me the next day,
"Wow, That was such an education in composition. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And so did Michealina.
The whole scene was so, if I could say, "New York". It was fabulous! Thank You for bringing culture
to Las Vegas. They are great players. Their interpretation was very tight and well conceived.
I had a feeling of calm over me the rest of the day. I must now invest in Bartok."
My part in arranging for this event to happen was very small. The real work and real generosity
was the entirely the quartet's. Everybody also owes big thanks to the fabulous folks at the Rio
and Harrah's, especially Michael Weaver, Debbie Barrantine, Steve Stevenson and Carla McKenzie for
their unparalleled hospitality. The Las Vegas Chamber Music Society, exuberantly led by John Clare,
aided by Robert Stewart, Jerry Eadeh, and Nevada Public Radio did a perfect job of getting word out to
the music lovers on short notice. And, of course, Krasher, Glenn, Laura, and Steven Doctors at the
Penn & Teller office did additional promotion, arrangement, and made all the pieces fall together.
All I did was spend some money and want some music, though I do admit I wanted it very hard.