Encores & Curtain Calls: PVS’ ‘Exploration’
Hungarian composer Bela Bartok
Violinist and New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen will perform the second violin concerto by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok during the Pioneer Valley Symphony’s “Exploration” concert at Frontier Regional School Saturday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. See "Music."
“I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.”
— Bela Bartok
Paul Phillips and the Pioneer Valley Symphony continue their expanding trajectory through the music of recent as well as past centuries with “Exploration,” a concert featuring all Hungarian-composed or inflected pieces, offered at the Frontier Regional School, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m.
The evening’s featured work is the edgy second violin concerto of 20th-century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, performed at the hands of violinist and New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen.
An American, Nikkanen began his violin studies at 3 and made his Carnegie Hall debut at 12, performing with the New York Symphony. Two years later, he was invited by Zubin Mehta to perform the Paganini Concerto No.1 with the New York Philharmonic for a Young People’s Concert.
He has appeared with the Dallas Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, among many other ensembles.
Also on the program are a selection of Brahms Hungarian Dances, and Liszt’s tone poem, “Tasso, Lamento e trionfo.”
As with all human beings, composers or not, Bartok was a hybrid of the traditions and influences at work both in his native culture as well as the pervasive artistic climate of his extemded world. Like most true Hungarians of the period, he was heir to a rich legacy of offbeat and odd-metered folksong, which, in his youth, he sought out and extensively recorded with his famed colleague, composer Zoltan Kodaly.
But he was also a preternaturally perceptive young musician with a highly-strung, supersensitive nervous system who was simultaneously absorbing the reigning musical currents at the time: Stravinsky, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel and Schoenberg, to name but a few.
It was a world in which the long-standing aesthetic paradigm of “Beauty-Before-All” was being challenged upon every side, and in which the intrusions and infusions of everything from social unrest to Freudian psychology were reformatting just what it meant to create meaningful art.
Thus it was that, in the creations of Bartok, we hear a unified blend of simplicity and complexity, of primitive folksong and 20th-century musical psychologizing, of drone-like harmonic simple-mindedness alongside ear-shattering dissonance. In this seemingly unholy matrimony of the innocent and the initiated, a musical artist could account for both sides of the dichotomies in which he lived: the beloved, long-lost world of his coming of age and the heady, if frighteningly uncertain world of his present.
Even a cursory listen to the Bartok concerto will reveal a spirit riven with many seemingly contradictory dynamics: a haunting ethnic lyricism, an almost morbid indulgence in shocking sounds for their own sake, an impulsive dance-driven enthusiasm and a frustrating inability to sustain the warmth of the musical sunlight for more than a few fleeting moments, before departing into darker valleys.
But this was the enigma of Bartok, a being, who, to the end of his days, walked a razor’s edge of sensitivity and inscrutability, of genius and of extreme psychological and physical vulnerability, rendering him painfully receptive to every passing shift in mood, atmosphere and — literally — of frequency in his environment.
Such is the life of one who is truly listening to the universe.
Below, my interview with Kurt Nikkanen.
JM: I assume that this is not your first time around with the Bartok concerto ...
KN: No, no.
JM: Has it been in your repertoire for a while?
KN: Yes, the first performance I gave of this piece was in 1982.
JM: Did you ever play the first concerto, which did not come out until after Bartok’s death?
KN: No, I never did play the first one ... It’s very different, it’s very beautiful, but I haven’t had an opportunity to perform it.
JM: When I was a teenager, my favorite piece — perhaps over the course of 10 years — was his “Concerto for Orchestra.”
KN: That was one of mine, too, when I was a kid, that and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — the first two pieces of 20th century music I ever heard.
JM: What I didn’t realize at the time, because that was my first and most enduring Bartok exposure, was that that was atypical Bartok.
JM: ... in that it is consistently much more lyrical than the rest of his output.
KN: That’s right, it’s less spiky and somewhat less dissonant.
JM: Whereas, when you listen to “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” or this concerto you’ll be doing, you find much more searing sounds and it both intrigues and bothers me, because I understand the need for a composer to be authentic and explore, but some of the time there seems to be gratuitous “spark-making” or dissonance, and in this piece you have a constant fluctuation between lyricism — the desire to sing and dance — and all sorts of psychospiritual angst that keeps invading the piece. Do you experience that when you’re performing it, or is it all of a piece for you?
KN: Well, I think it was all a conscious part of the creation of this piece, the juxtaposition of extremes and the way he places contrasting phrases side by side. I would say it had to do with an inner battle the composer had with himself, like Schumann, for example, with contrasting sides of his personality, or possibly he was just exploring those themes in an abstract way.
JM: But as a performer, is it ever a frustration to you, as it is to me as a listener, to feel a lyrical momentum being aborted too early?
KN: Well, I think in the context of that piece I think it’s pretty well gauged. I wouldn’t say it’s too early, but, yes, its lyrical, singing moments only last so long. And maybe it has to do with what was going on historically at the time he wrote the piece ...
JM: ... no doubt ...
KN: ... that the lyrical elements represent the idealized world and the interruptions may be coming from war and other conditions in Hungary.
JM: Understood, but, does that ever frustrate you personally?
KN: No, that doesn’t frustrate me. I wouldn’t wish for the piece to be any other way.
JM: As concertmaster of the New York City Ballet, you’re constantly performing music for the dance and my question is, does that inform your performances of concert works in any way that you’re aware of?
KN: That’s a very good question, and thanks for asking that. It does, and not only in works that are both concert works and ballet works, for example, the Stravinsky violin concerto, which I’ve played outside of the ballet and at the ballet, but it does change how you think about rhythm. When I first came to the job, there were many pieces I was asked to play that I had already played outside the dance world. But doing for live dance for the first time was really eye opening because you saw things in the choreography that made the rhythm absolutely understandable. And, the rhythmic aspect coming from movement, especially with Stravinsky — the kinetic element — is so important that a lot of things that are done in concert wouldn’t work with ballet. And I stopped doing those things in concert as well because they became such an integral part of the piece to me. I don’t know, I started grasping rhythm in perhaps a more physically grounded way that even the way I played unaccompanied Bach — all sorts of things — became less abstract to me. If you think of dance as being the background of moment, you have to communicate that rhythm to the dancers and they have to understand it on the spot. So, you have to start thinking about rhythmic shape and rhythmic clarity.
JM: I feel the voice is our most valuable instrument for re-connecting us with ourselves, and right along with it, the body; and if you can get these two in gear, you’ve got a human being who’s in contact with who they really are.
JM: I would think that would be your greatest gift in playing the Bartok because, right beneath all of his angst and his psychospiritual exploration, one can feel the root system of earth and the Hungarian rhythms pulsing beneath his psyche.
KN: Yes, I feel, at the core of the piece, there is a serenity, there is nothing random about it and it always resolves in a positive way. Yyou go through these trials and such, but he always brings you home.
Frontier Regonal School is located at 113 North Main St., South Deerfield.
Tickets: adults, $20; seniors (65 and over) $17; students/children (under 18 or with a valid ID), $6.
Bring a child and get 15 percent off entire ticket order.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.