Microcosmos Quartet, Béla Bartók & Tom Cone's Laughing GhostSunday, November 16, 2014
Béla Bartók wrote six string quartets. His fifth he composed in 1934. Eighty years later I heard it for the first time with a laughing ghost over my shoulder.
Thanks to (because might be a better choice of word) the Microcosmos String Quartet headed by Marc Destrubé on violin, Andrea Siradze, violin, Rebecca Windham, cello and Tawnya Popoff on viola, I found this work uncommonly lyrical. How is this possible?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that for the last year I have heard Bartók’s first four quartets, more than once in concerts held in pleasant surroundings, homes of music lovers, all performed by the Microcosmos Quartet. With those Bartok compositions I have also listened to all (three) of Benjamin Britten’s string quartets.
With the 20th century over ever so most definitely it was about time I was exposed to this kind of music. It is the purpose and goal of Microcosmos (info on the reason for this name here) to promote this kind of music that is so underplayed which has been at the same time so influential. I sometimes think that Bartók is in the same camp of notoriety/fame as Noam Chomsky. People know who he is but you can never pin them down in being able to explain them.
Destrubé has helped us the frequent concert goers to his quartet Bartók concerts to humanize and soften the man. One story is that Bartók’s son Peter watched his father go into his study, where he worked on his compositions, and close the door. Minutes later he heard his father repeatedly laughing.
Sitting barely five feet away from the quartet in this last nicely sunny afternoon I knew that the surroundings of the house were familiar. Indeed I was in the house of Karen Matthews, who was the partner of Vancouver playwright and librettist Tom Cone. Everything in the house nicely smacked of an interest in good books, design and art. In fact we were informed that many concerts of new music have been played there.
Behind me there was a nice young man with a smile on his face. The nice young man, Thomas Weideman, born in 1992, was there to listen with us to the premiere (East Vancouver premiere, that is) of his 2014 work changing at the same time.
Between R. Murray Schafer’s 1970 String Quartet No. 1 and Bartók’s lyrical (at times!) String Quartet No. 5 we heard the quartet play, purely on their instrument’s harmonics, Weideman’s soft and pleasing (a palate cleanser, Destrubé called it) piece.
Interesting to us, since Destrubé always explains the facts and the story behind the works his quartet plays, was learning that while most composers’ quartets put an effort to bring together those two violins, viola and cello, Schafer had done the opposite! The musicians all tried to escape one of a time from the constraints of the composition.
If you add to the warm surroundings with pleasant people the idea that a laughing ghost was present it all added to a fine musical Sunday in which I can now attest that should I hear any of those first five Bartók quartets in a recording or on the radio I just might be able to identify that so serious Hungarian.