The Bartok Experience

By Brian McCreath

When I was in high school, I joined a youth orchestra at just the right time: in the year of a European tour! It was my first time to play with anything like a real orchestra, and the fact that our year would culminate in a trip to Romania and Hungary, with a few days in Vienna to cap it off, only sweetened what already seemed like a pretty exciting prospect.

And among the pieces of music we took with us was the Viola Concerto by Béla Bartók (below). In comparison to the other music on our programs - Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 - it positively crackled with other-world-ness in my 17-year-old ears.

But what is that other world? It's not Bartók's alone; he would tell you that himself, I imagine. There are those composers who invent sound worlds out of thin air, but the music Bartók wrote has, at its core, the music of the countryside, painstakingly collected by visiting the villages of Hungary and Romania with unbelievably cumbersome and primitive recording equipment.

That monumental effort paid off. Ultimately, his musical creations take that DNA to places only he could have constructed.

In November 2008, thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston, we had the chance here in Boston to experience the connections between Bartók's work and its spiritual (and sometimes actual) source material in a fiery, colorful, visceral way. The Takács Quartet, originally from Hungary, now based in Colorado, collaborated with the Hungarian folk band Muzsikás and folk singer Márta Sebestyén for a fascinating concert that placed Bartók's concert music side by side with examples of the music he collected in the villages of Hungary and Romania.

The results are exhilarating.

After that trip to Hungary as a teenager, I had an intense desire to return to Budapest. It had been my first trip abroad, our time in Hungary only lasted a few days, and it was a chaperoned group tour in a Communist country. Not too much flexibilty to explore, as you can imagine...

But something about the place and the music had grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I finally got the chance to return last spring, as part of a WGBH LearningTour, and I wasn't disappointed. Budapest is an even more beautiful city now than it was under the Communist regime (no surprise there, I suppose).

Serendipitously, we had the chance to attend a concert honoring Bartók on the anniversary of his birth, which took place at the gorgeous concert hall that bears his name (right).

To be honest, it wasn't the most polished concert. With a combination of professional, semi-professional, and student groups, the results were always going to be mixed. But one thing was abundantly clear: Bartók's music is held very close to the hearts of the people of Hungary. The soulfulness with which the performance unfolded was striking, and I ended up feeling like the fortunate interloper, happy to have had the chance to share that evening with the people of Budapest.


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