In the classical world there are many forms of music. There are the massive symphonies and concertos, requiring up to one hundred or more players and there are the solo pieces where a single performer makes their specific instrument squeal like a pig. In between these two extremes is what is commonly known as "Chamber Music". Yes, the term instantly calls to mind Mrs. Scrabcake's private tea parties replete with crinoline and doilies and a string quartet stiffly sawing away in the corner. In reality, chamber music is music written for smaller groups of musicians, usually ten or less. I suppose if you wanted to stretch the definition (and gym teachers recommend stretching at least three times a day, plus flossing), even a rock band could be termed chamber music. A good rock band, that is, for chamber music makes up for it's lack of size with intense interactions between the instruments, somewhat like a jazz trio that locks so perfectly into a groove that the players seem to be as one (woah! It's getting heady in here!). As the more astute among you may have guessed by now, for a nominal fee of $15, you can hear members of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic play such music in this very city!!! It is called the Freimann Series and your next opportunity to hear this exciting music is this Wednesday (the 17th) at 7:30 and again the following Sunday (the 21st) at 2:30 at the Museum of Art (sarcastic comment about the steel grotesques in the front lawn removed by politically savvy editor). I say excited because the music being played would not be allowed into Mrs. Muntjak's tea parties, even if it did have stars upon thars.
The first piece is Ku-Ka Ilimoku by Christopher Rouse. This piece is so hot, so new, so "with-it" that I couldn't find a thing about it or the composer. I suspect he is still alive so if you go, applaud loudly at this piece in case he is sitting behind you with a large haddock.
Up on deck is Claude Debussy (1862 to 1918) with his Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. If there is one guy who started 20th century music, it was Claude, but I wouldn't give him too much credit. He had a head start and was writing 20th century music as early as 1894 (cheaters never win). Don't be scared off by the "20th century" title. You've heard his music and you liked it (Yes you did! REALLY! Don't make me stop this car!) Not only did he write the ever popular Claire de lune (translation: Claire the nutcase) but also L'apres midi d'un faune (commonly known as The Afternoon of the Faun). The latter is music for a ballet, the outline of which is your typical Goat-Meets-Nymph, Goat-Chases-Nymph, Goat-Loses-Nymph, Goat-Eats-Grapes story.
At the time Debussy was composing music, artists such as Monet and Renoir were painting hazy, blurred images that were called "impressionistic" because they gave impressions of the subject matter. Debussy's music sounded like these paintings looked so the name "impressionism" stuck. To create these new sounds, he needed something new (the old tried-and-true harmonies and chord structures just weren't cutting the mustard!). What he came up with was a completely new way to compose with constantly shifting harmonics and new colors. One of his greatest achievements is the whole-tone scale where you play every other note on the piano, regardless of color. The result is a magical, dreamy hazy sound that is used every time Gilligan has a dream sequence. While today his music sounds lush and sensual (little old ladies like it but so do muscle-bound hired goons), in the late 1800's, it made people livid! Debussy was flunked from his composition class and years later, after Debussy had proven he was right, one unlucky student was expelled from the Paris Conservatory just for having a Debussy score in his possession (just say no!)! It also took the Paris audiences a long time to warm up to his music as most of them were preoccupied with Joseph Pujol, the celebrated Fartiste! By reason of influence, he can easily be called the most important composer of the 20th century. Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and many others all admit a great debt to this maligned Frenchman. Behold! More on Debussy!
Bela Bartok (without the Flecktones) is the last composer for the performance. He was a trained concert pianist who specialized in the music of Bach and Liszt, spending the early part of his career as a concert pianist. Then he went into the country with a fellow named Kodaly and his life changed forever. Ignore the rumors that he was ambushed by an angry tribe of oompa-loompas who dyed his hair green, what changed him were the exotic folk songs he heard. Up until this time, composers such as Liszt and Dvorak used folk melodies in their music but they "purdied" them up for Western ears. Not Bartok! He used these abrupt, bizarre rhythms straight from the bottle. Not surprisingly, a lot of folks didn't like this folk music (heh heh heh, I'm so clever). My favorite quote is from a fellow who stated that a Bartok piano recital caused him more suffering than any occasion in his life apart from "an incident or two connected with dentistry." Of course, this was in the early 1900s and time has tempered our video-game, slasher film score ears to the point that his music sounds quite, well, purdy. This might be because while his contemporaries were composing 12-tone music that sound like someone throwing constipated rottweilers into the orchestra pit, Bartok "stodgily" remained tonal. As happens all too often, it was not until after his death that people decided that his music really wasn't all that bad, that it's quite good, really. Yes, I think we finally agree that it is quite up to snuff.
His second string quartet, which he wrote in 1917, will be the chosen piece played this weekend. Bartok's six string quartets have been called his greatest achievement and span his entire creative career. Most even regard these pieces to be the finest string quartets written since Beethoven (now that's an endorsement you don't see on many cereal boxes). Through these quartets, Bartok manages to portray his deepest, most profound thoughts, making them among the most rewarding experiences in 20th century music. Be warned, however, that these pieces are not without their thorns... it's the only way to keep the oompa-loompas at bay. More Bartok here, kiddies!
Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman