Sunday, July 24, 2011

File This Under "Perception Is Everything"

While it’s easy to make fun of bad reviews of music generally recognized as masterpieces today, the idea – as Nicholas Slonimsky did in his wonderful collection called The Lexicon of Musical Invective which should be required reading on every composer’s night-stand – bears consideration when we realize how our perceptions change.

At Friday night’s program of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011, Fry Street Quartet first violinist Will Fedkenheuer prefaced their performance of Bartók’s 3rd Quartet by saying how a violist friend of his brought a boombox into his practice room and said “you’ve got to listen to this!” Will’s initial reaction to hearing this tape of Bartók’s 3rd implied a proficiency with profanity he was reluctant to share in mixed company, but over time he came to love the work and, after all, here he was, playing it tonight - and giving it, after all, a completely committed performance.

It reminded me of a story I’ve told often (and will continue to tell) how a student of mine at the University of Connecticut, taking a junior-level 20th Century music class, made a dismissive noise as I began introducing the music of Béla Bartók.

“I take it you don’t like Bartók,” I asked him.

“Can’t stand him…”

“And what is it about Bartók you don’t like?”

“Well, it’s all this motor rhythm and aggressive dissonance,” and I don’t remember what else he complained about, but it was a long list and enough to get started on.

So I asked him, “now, I understand you like Mahler’s music.”

“Oh, I love Mahler!” His expression changed to one of near ecstasy.

“So, what is it you like about Mahler?”

“The way he just expands everything beyond recognition, how he builds to his climaxes,” and so on.

I thought I’d go out on a limb. I remembered how it took me a while to warm up to Mahler. “Did you always like Mahler?”

“No, actually – I couldn’t stand it, at first.”

“What was it you didn’t like about it?”

“For one thing, it was just so long, I mean it took forever to get somewhere and I had no idea where he was or where he was going…” and so on.

“So, what changed your mind?”

Nodding his head, apparently recalling the challenge it had first presented and how, after all that work, he had found it to be more than rewarding, he said "Oh, I had to listen to it a lot."


[insert light bulb here]

“Ah,” he said quietly. “I guess I should listen to Bartók more…”

Three years later, I was sitting in the recital hall at the Juilliard School of Music where this student, a gifted clarinetist, was giving his master’s recital. The last work on the program was “Contrasts” by Béla Bartók.

Given that, I want to mention this review I read and I want you to guess whose music it’s describing.

I’ll paraphrase it here, in case the literary style might give it away:

This piece “is a work built upon dry as dust elements,” something that slipped from the composer to prove what “an excellent mathematician he might have become.” He found this composer hopeless, unfeeling, unemotional and arid. To him it was like listening to quadratic equations and hyperbolic curves.

The review concludes with the reminder that “music is not only a science: it is also an art.” While the piece was played with precision, he remarked that’s really the only way you can “work out a problem in musical trigonometry.”

So, who was he talking about? Was it…

(a.) Iannis Xenakis
(b.) Johann Sebastian Bach
(c.) Elliott Carter
(d.) Johannes Brahms
(e.) Béla Bartók
(f.) Arnold Schoenberg

Click on this link to listen to a video of the work this critic was reviewing. And you can read more about the composer and this particular piece in this post.

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