Monday, March 28, 2011

Bartok in the Caribbean

ODEONQUARTET returned from a week in the small French/Dutch island of St. Martin/St. Maarten a few days ago. This was a trip made possible by the collaboration of many folks in different locations, all devoted to the idea of bringing chamber music to the island.
You would think that a lighter program, perhaps some Philip Glass, Ljova, maybe some shorter works, would have been just the ticket, but we got the message that they wanted a real meat and potatoes program. So it was that we played a movement from the American composer George Rochberg’s Sixth String Quartet, the entire first Bartok quartet, and the incomparably beautiful Beethoven Op. 59, No. 1 quartet, which is the first of his “heroic” period quartets and clocks in at about 45 minutes.
Having flown in from Seattle, where we’d been hailed upon of late, and were in...oh...about our sixth month of yearly gray gloom, and emerging into the intense Caribbean sunlight was actually a little bewildering for me, at first. The sun tracks directly overhead and it is surprisingly humid. It wasn’t until a bit later that I discovered the delicious wonderment that is a warm Caribbean breeze. It just really never gets cold enough, even in the shade, even at night, to feel chilly. Sitting under an umbrella or on a shaded porch overlooking the ocean is simply a delight that I won’t soon forget. The soft breezes carry a silken warmth that feels like a guilty pleasure to this Pacific Northwesterner. 
All this new-found hedonism did not necessarily put me in the frame of mind for the tale of angst-y unrequited love that is Bartok’s First Quartet. Furthermore, the last movement is Bartok’s first instance of trotting out formalized folk material, and he uses this first foray into the technique to spin out pages and pages of ever more intense and relentless Carpathian Basin musical madness. One friend refers to the piece as a “tapeworm”. So this was the odd thing: our mission was to perform and bring this music to a new audience, but here we were, on the beach, experiencing the unveiling of bare skin for the first time in 2011. What’s a violist to do?
The answer, of course, is the same as always: focus, and be professional. It meant a bit less relaxing and unwinding in vacation mode, more time in the air-conditioned hotel room doing some warming up and practice, and less time doing tourist activities. Honestly, I think it was a very nice balance, as we had two entirely free days. We went on a hike one day, and drove around the island on another, stopping in at the various towns and beaches, getting French pastries and trying to stay out of the sun. It is probably true that I’m more constitutionally suited to being inside, practicing, performing, writing, teaching...but it was a delight to visit.
The most gratifying moment for me, personally, was meeting the middle-aged black man, toothless and wearing his abundant hair tucked up into a knit cap, whose friends had chipped in to buy him a ticket to our concert. It was the first time he’d heard a string quartet, the first time he’d heard Bartok, the first time he’d heard of or seen a viola. He was absolutely enthralled and his excitement about the performance and the music was deeply moving. Talking to him after the concert was truly an honor.
Additionally, two girls who played the violin wanted to get some advice on how to hold and use the bow properly. I took a deep breath and tried to tell them everything I could in a few minutes about general bow technique principles. They seemed incredibly enthused and I was grateful for the opportunity to be helpful.
Wonderful trip.


  1. Love it! All right, let's get a grant to go teach in St. Martin!