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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Zankel Hall
02/13/2004 -  
Hungarian Traditional Music and excerpts from the work of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly
Takacs Quartet

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Six

Jive Junction

With performances this season by Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, Carnegie Hall has begun to resemble its namesake in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Of course, it has been many years now since pop performers have played on West 57th Street, but by and large these concerts were not sponsored by the hall, rather they were simply events that were rented out for the evening like the slew of graduations that fill the place every late spring. Now, however, Carnegie management seems to be consciously cultivating a dumbing-down of its repertoire as a totality and, in the process, transporting their employer’s image from that of the world’s most admired concert venue to simply another unfocused performance space. Back when it looked like the New York Philharmonic was going to bully its way in, Jay Nordlinger of the New York Sun wrote:

“If Carnegie Hall felt that it needed the Philharmonic invasion to become – or remain – financially secure, so be it. Far from me to argue. But it should not be denied that the hall is losing something – a biggish something. It used to be home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra – everybody. Now it’s simply home to the New York Philharmonic.”

Thankfully, the barbarian assault was repelled, but the mindset remains. Oddly, in a New York filled with lovers of Carnegie as the unequalled example of the great music tradition, it is its own management which seems anxious to tarnish its priceless cachet. What is the ratio of pop to classical which turns a hallowed hall into just another auditorium? With all of us inundated with pop culture at every turn and New York filled with clubs and theaters whose only reason for being is pandering to the bridge, tunnel and Disney crowd, does the new Zankel Hall really need to have a concert by Bill Frisell and the Intercontinentals? What is the clear distinction now between this place and any of a few dozen others in this town? Is this why Isaac Stern saved Carnegie from the wrecking ball?

The addition of a new venue in the basement might be good for the bottom line, but its catch-all programming brings the institution as a whole dangerously close to crossing that other line separating quality from quantity. A concert combining “world” music (itself, along with “top 40” style classical radio, a way to dilute painstakingly constructed masterworks of genius with thinning, shallow waters supposedly easier to digest) with serious Western musical tradition is as close as this reviewer will ever be to experiencing any evening at all relevant to these matters, and so a combination of Hungarian folk musicians with the renowned Takacs Quartet at Zankel seemed just the occasion to explore some of these unpopular (in both senses of the word) issues.

Hedging my bets just a little, I chose a concert whose musicological content is a kissing cousin of my own inbred Romany tradition, hoping in the process to shield myself somewhat from charges of ethnocentrism (the modern version of branding someone as a witch) whilst speaking frankly about the inclusion of unexpurgated dance music on an otherwise classical program. Certainly there are other profound musical traditions in the world (without quotation marks), systems which have fostered works of genius in situ the equal of many in the European classical output (although perhaps not that of Mozart or Beethoven), but the profusion of “world” music centers around simplistic and repetitive genres much more akin to Western pop than many university professors might like to admit. The management of Carnegie wouldn’t present Pete Seegar or Peter, Paul and Mary as classical performers… or would they?

Of course, Bartók is the poster child for ethnomusicology, devoting much of his life to native music studies in a land from which his predecessors Liszt and Brahms mined many nuggets, although these ores often assayed as pyrite or even filigreed lead. Last evening’s program consisted of snippets of music written by him and his colleague Zoltan Kodaly (played by the string quartet) and inspired by the Hungarian folk tradition as related to the audience by a group of ethnic types who did their best to try and look disreputable but betrayed their conventionality by presenting surprisingly listless examples of Transylvanian ditties (I believe that most of us were hoping for something a bit less tame). My knowledge of the technical and interpretive nuances of the gardon being nonexistent, it would be impossible for me to evaluate the level of play, so let me just put on my reporter’s hat (the 1930’s fedora with the press pass sticking up out if it) and offer a brief description.

Muzsikas would play for a while and then the Takacs would do the same. Obviously, the point of all of this was to make clear the connections between the two types of music, however, by offering only bleeding chunks of the more serious examples, no one was well served, not the composer, not the folkies, not the crowd. Particularly hard to swallow was the overlay of Moldavian and Romanian dances during works of great power and invention like the Bartok Fourth Quartet and, yes, even his Romanian Folk Dances. If the composer had wanted this particular music, played in this particular manner, in his piece, then he jolly well would have put it there. Without question, those audience members who cared to could learn a musical lesson, although, for this reviewer, the presentation reminded of a rather dry as dust ethnomusicology class. But also unequivocally, no one left the hall having heard a single piece of Bartok or Kodaly played properly from beginning to end (although some may have thought that they had).

When Leon Botstein presented an evening of folk-inspired works a couple of seasons ago at Avery Fisher, he simply allowed his American Symphony Orchestra to perform them as written. Before that concert, composer in residence Richard Wilson began his lecture by stating that he was a particularly bad choice to be giving a talk about ethnicity because he “didn’t have one”. Whilst listening to this pastiche of a program, I was ruminating on that witticism and trying to formulate one of my own when the insistent rumblings of the subway trains reminded that it was time for me to go home.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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