Close Encounters 'Magyar!' concert sounds Hungarian music at the Mahaiwe


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Béla Bartók, even by today's standards, was an odd fellow. He collected and preserved insects with a scientist's fervor. (He always smelled of chloroform). He demanded silence so that he could listen to sound, any sound coming from his native Hungary, where he traveled the countryside recording folk songs from Romani gypsy encampments to town squares. He felt any music he heard on his 13-year trek was worth recording.

"The story goes that he went to Transylvania, which was the end of the world in those days -- with a sack of wax cylinders and a phonograph, horse and cart -- and went from village to village convincing people to sing," said cellist Yehuda Hanani. "He found that the songs were totally unpolluted and uninfluenced by the outside world. He was a famous composer already, yet he became the world's first ethnomusicologist."

Hanani is the founder and artistic director of Close Encounters With Music, which will bring some of Bartók's musical heritage to life at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 27. "Magyar!" -- an all-Hungarian program -- will combine elements of that region's incredibly diverse canon of sound. From the hammered dulcimer (cimbalom, the national folk instrument of Hungary) to Brahms' regal Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major to Liszt's impassioned "Rhapsody," the pieces will speak to a culture that does not shy away from gritty complexity.

"In general, there is a correspondence between speech patterns of a language and the music coming from that country or culture. That's why there's no Mozart opera written in Japanese," Hanani said. "The language still exists. There is a gravitational pull on its structure that translates to music. It's what makes Debussy more French. In Hungarian, there is a stress on the first syllable of words, and this is translated in the musical pieces."

There is one work that Hanani finds particularly special, on he will perform with Philadelphia-born pianist Lydia Artymiw. Bartók's 1938 "Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano," commissioned by jazz great (and clarinetist) Benny Goodman, is a fusion of Hungarian folk music, Romanian dance melodies, jazz syncopations, classical passages and dissonant tones.

To Artymiw, it's a thing of difficult beauty.

"What's so hard about ‘Contrasts' is that it's very tricky to put together," she said by phone from her faculty desk at the University of Minnesota School of Music. "It takes a lot of individual preparation to get ready for it. It can be light and playful, but it has these dark creepy tones and spooky chord clusters, yet it's very listenable. It's one of the most important pieces of the 20th century."

Artymiw will also perform Brahms' Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major and Liszt's third Hungarian Rhapsody. She said while the second can feel showy, the Brahms moves her.

"It's one of my favorites. Brahms was a magnificent composer in every way," she said. "He's not one of the flashy ones. I've always preferred the music that is more profound."

Which is not to say that Artymiw prefers classical cadenzas over their more folksy Slovakian kin. As a down-to-earth pianist born to Ukrainian parents, she talked about the deep-rooted inspiration for her beloved Brahms' trios.

"There is a yearning, a sadness in the music, always. Of course, when you think about it, the gypsies were often outcasts. They were poor, homeless. They travelled from city to city, with little education," she said. "Yet, they were deeply musical. They had great musical instincts."

The "Magyar!" program pays homage to those instincts, Hanani said. But more than virtuosic precision and compositional brilliance, his aim is to show the audience, through sound, the passionate music of a culture that might have been forgotten except for the tenacity of her native songcatchers.

"It is so stimulating to understand where these great composers came from, to think that Liszt somehow originated from these humble folk tunes and from instruments as old as the cimbalom," he said. "That brings it to such a sublime level. People like Bartók had such a tremendous interest in exploring and preserving their roots. And lucky for us they did. It was a labor of love."

If you go ...

What: Concert of Hungarian music

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 27

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Admision: $25 to $45



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