There’s something quite charming about a well-programmed concert. I love it when the different elements all work together to tell a coherent story, or present familiar compositions from a new perspective. A July Chamber Music Northwest concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, performed by the Zorá Quartet and other CMNW artists, did just that. The concert featured compositions by Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ludwig van Beethoven, in performances by CMNW alumni and Protege Project Artists, and the selection was just right: from light-hearted violin duos to a bitter 20th-century quintet for piano and strings, ending on the profound final string quartet of one of the tradition’s giants.
Teacher and student duo Ani Kavafian and Benjamin Hoffman began the evening with selections from Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, composed in 1931. It is always nice to see teachers performing with their students, passing the torch and revitalizing traditions (even relatively new traditions) for the next generation, and Bartók wrote these duos with just such a pedagogical purpose in mind; as with his Mikrokosmos, Bartók’s identity as a composer cannot be separated from his identity as an educator and as a champion of folk music. Teacher Kavafian and student Hoffman (a student at Yale in his first season with CMNW’s Protege Project) performed a well-balanced selection, covering a fair portion of the vast range of Bartók’s quirky and profound musical personality. Performers and audience alike were visibly, audibly enthusiastic, chuckling and toe-tapping at the delightful neo-folk miniatures, which made it feel more like a village gathering than a formal classical music concert.
Now in her 22nd season with CMNW, Kavafian’s joyful demeanor during her brief time on stage felt like a homecoming—a performance for friends and peers in a familiar space, showing off her pupil and generally having a good time. Although any of Bartók’s many chamber pieces could have made for a good first act, the decision to open with such life-affirming and humanistic music started the concert’s story on just the right note.
Bartók’s earthy, earnest duos contrasted with Shostakovich’s deeply ironic sensibility in the program’s second act. His quintet was composed in 1940, around the same time as his Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, immediately following Stalin’s Great Terror. Awarded a State Stalin Prize in 1941, the quintet is one of several Shostakovich compositions that can be seen alternately as obsequious catering to oppressive bureaucratic imperatives or as satirical denunciations of Stalinism and state control of art and culture. The abiding beauty and almost perverse introspectiveness of Shostakovich’s music lies precisely in this ambivalence. Ultimately, the ability of such a profoundly gifted artist to resolve — in instrumental music — the dialectical conflict between state oppression and individual freedom is a key component of Shostakovich’s ongoing appeal.
The Zorá Quartet, joined by Israeli pianist and fellow CMNW Protege Project Artist Yevgeny Yontov, captured this compelling ambiguity beautifully, with an intense maturity that I would not usually expect of such young musicians. In their premiere season as Protege Project Artists at Chamber Music Northwest, their playing was cool, but not detached—there is a sort of intellectual passion in this music, a doubting quality that Zorá’s artful hesitations and earnest sonic clarity did well to highlight. Even at the music’s most melancholy moments, there was a certain restrained playfulness to their performance, as if indulging in a secret sardonic smile at the expense of the bureaucrats who didn’t know the joke was on them. There was some hint, too, of the stoically brave face one puts on in response to crushing horror. Their interpretation of an ambiguous composition was, thus, itself appropriately ambiguous.
There exists, in the popular mythology of the classical music world, an anecdote connecting Bartók and Shostakovich, who reacted so differently to oppression in their homelands, with the former fleeing to America, the latter staying behind and working through his troubled relationship with Soviet authority. The story goes that Bartók heard Shostakovich’s particularly Soviet (or is it?) Leningrad Symphony on the radio and quoted one of its themes in his Concerto for Orchestra, in what is normally interpreted as a satirical condemnation. This concert made me rethink that quotation as a cry of conflicted sympathy from one composer to another. Bartók himself was in pretty dire straits at the time, having risked everything only to suffer declining health and crushing financial difficulties upon arrival in America (where he might well have died penniless without support from—among others—conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, who commissioned the Concerto). In the context of so much conflict and repression, this union of personal, political, and musical expression feels like the passing of notes through cracks in the prison walls.
In Beethoven’s case, no contemporary could be his peer; his “notes through the cracks” are meant for the future, not his contemporaneous fellows. His eternal missives are meant for the future: for Bartók and Shostakovich, for us, and for those who will come after us.
Zorá’s execution of Beethoven’s relatively brief, serene final quartet brought out all the resolution implied by its finality in Beethoven’s oeuvre and its position in this concert’s third act. Part of Beethoven’s enduring charm, now passing the 200-year mark, is his ability to raise and then resolve so many universal conflicts—between fate and free will, the individual and society, convention and innovation, domination and surrender, grandeur and intimacy, and so on. Here, the music’s resigned serenity (epitomized in its famous motto “Must it be? It must be!”) provided an emotional answer to the Bartók-Shostakovich conflict. Beethoven was a deaf composer, after all, which should be impossible, yet he overcame personal and political obstacles with such force of musical and philosophical personality that we not only continue to listen to his music, we continue to discuss it and consider it Important.
In their separate ways, Bartók and Shostakovich discovered that they, like Beethoven, could find solace, freedom, and expression in their music. For me, it is a testament to the possibilities of our Western classical tradition that a dialectical tension between 20th-century Hungarian-American and Russian-Soviet composers can be resolved, in concert if not in life, by the 18th-century Austrian-German composer who influenced them both. This is why I love classical music. When it all comes together in a single concert like this, it’s pure bliss.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and graduate student at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.