The next Masterworks concert on Oct. 20th and 21st feature Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World, but the music on my stand to be bowed is Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is just barely not too late to start working on November’s featured work. Practicing Bartok is like playing tennis, doing Sudoku and gardening, all at once. Only Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has comparable sonic breadth and splendor. Why isn’t it called a Symphony? A concerto for orchestra implies that more is demanded of each individual player, and that is certainly the case.
Sometimes you can predict where a passage is going to go, but when you miss an accidental or rhythmic shift, it’s ADVANTAGE, BARTOK! Since the tritone (e.g., C# to G♮) is an important interval in Bartok, and our strings are tuned in 5ths (e.g., C ♮ to G ♮), a lot of the scales- and there are many- can only use every other open string for pitch quality assurance, which on the violin is not too problematic because the intervals are smaller and easy to reach. On the cello, however the musical alphabet, in terms of reachable intervals, can only be written in a very large font which requires much more shifting. Would that we could get our “rackets” restrung!
I studied Bartok’s compositional technique in undergrad. His medium is the octotonic scale, where scale segments of first a whole-step and then a half-step pile up like Jenga blocks, starting over at every octave. This ensures adherence to the Fibonacci Sequence, which governs everything in Bartok from pitch selection to duration of movements. When you get it to all add up, you realize that you didn’t just learn how to play a passage. You became smarter, and your instrument did also.
Getting the Bartok Concerto to bloom and flourish– indeed, all playing we do– requires nurturing, cultivating and protection from the elements- the elements in this case being complacency, disbelief and preconceived notions of how a phrase should sound. Bartok was known to be very pleased when students brought the gift of a pine cone to his desk on which the spiraling arrangement of the scales are arranged in the Fibonacci series. Sunflower blooms also share this seed arrangement.
I learned a lot playing the third String Quartet of Bartok a couple seasons ago. I thought I had learned a lot when I first played it, in 1983 at the Yellow Barn Music Festival in Vermont. To be sure, it was an intense experience then; with only a couple weeks to master it, the somewhat random collection of personnel in the group needed to be quick adjustors, which always teaches. We performed it well and lived to tell about it. And quite frankly, the electronic devices we employ today– pitch generators, metronomes with subwoofers, tuner apps, and YouTube videos– didn’t exist. We had L.P.s. A dial-tone. And a Franz metronome that would scare the pants off of any TSA inspector. But the KSO principal quartet chose the work at least a year in advance, knew how to rehearse and knew each other very well, and there was a genuine thirst for knowledge about how to make sense of all those notes. The challenges of Bartok place the onus on us as individuals more than just about any other composer to make this whole add up to way more than the sum of its parts.