Bartók Night combines the best of both worlds
The world renowned Borromeo String Quartet and Robert Bonotto recreate the life through music of the modern composer Bèla Bartòk. The theater piece was written and directed by Professor of Theater and Dance Lynne Conner and had its Colby premiere this Friday.
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When the composer Béla Bartók was 12 years old, he heard Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet and he was in awe. He came back home and wrote down every note of the piece on manuscript paper. The violinist for the Borromeo String Quartet, Nicholas Kitchen, told the audience he has actually seen this sheet of manuscript paper–the moment Bartók fell in love with the string quartet preserved in a sheet of paper.
Professor of Theater and Dance Lynne Conner’s originally conceived and directed theater piece, Bartók Night was staged in two parts.
Bartók Genesis began with the piece that prompted Bartók’s love affair with the string quartet–(the first movement of Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet)–and ended with Bartók’s last string quartet, the culmination of his compositional idiom. Colby was lucky enough to have one of the premiere string quartets in the world perform on its on stage. The quartet’s exquisite artistry and intense passion reminded me why I love music.
After intermission a record player and a chair were added to the spare stage, and Bartók joined the quartet in the telling of his story. “Listen!” he said eagerly, putting the needle of the record player on the record. Here Borromeo readied themselves: the first violin played an evocation (melody is not the right term), answered by the cello. “Birds!” Bartók explained. And as the quartet continued, “Insects! The night sky.”
Ironic, sardonic, passionate, sincere Bartók was all these things. As a composer, he wrote in an idiom completely unlike his contemporaries or composers before him. Using inspiration from his native Hungary and Eastern Europe (folk songs, harmonies, scales, rhythms), Bartók was able to free his music “from the tyranny of major and minor” and experiment with meter, creating a sound in Western art music that was all his own.
At first I was afraid the play would be akin to a dramatic reading of a music history textbook. However, as it proceeded, one finds it is a deeper (and much more engaging) exploration. It is a subtle examination of Bartók the man, his music and his place during a transformative period in history.
His native Hungary having been occupied by Nazis during the Second World War, we find Bartók in self-imposed exile in America. (As an aside, while many composers sought to have their works played in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Bartók was adamantly opposed to having his music played in either country).
Bonotto talked to the audience as if we were students in a classroom, or as if we were journalists interviewing him. He mused about his music, his politics, Hungary, his family, and self-deprecatingly about himself. Conner’s script subtly united all these interconnected facets of his life.
Before seeing the play, I was curious about how Conner would integrate the string quartet with the actor on stage or how she would use music as a storytelling device. At first I thought it was awkward to have Bartók mill around stage while the quartet played an entire movement. But I realized that Bartók’s behavior is exactly how people listen to classical music and I really came to enjoy this meta-analysis as a subtle and revealing touch. Having a live quartet also made the music more alive and immediate.
I was especially drawn to the idea that music speaks where words fail. I can’t remember the exact context that called for the fifth movement of the Fourth String Quartet, but Borromeo played it with such exquisite and controlled violence: their bows crunching against strings in driving, erratic rhythms, that the context almost didn’t matter. The music stood on its own as a revealing and raw expression of Bartók.
Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” and while “beautiful” is not the first word most people would use to describe Bartók’s music, the play really made me feel like his music had made known a truth that cannot be named. Certainly, I came away feeling somehow more enlightened.
However, Bartók’s genius and artistry can only have expression when it is actually given voice. Conner, Bonotto and the Borromeo Quartet captured honestly and devotedly a facet of our own history and humanity in two of the most beautiful media: music and theater.