Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly rejected all distinctions based on class and social status. “Music is for everyone,” he said. “It is spiritual food, a prime necessity of life.”
Kodaly’s progressive, humanitarian philosophy closely parallels that of Chamber Music Michigan, a collectively run local ensemble dedicated to the presentation of high-quality music for a diverse audience. On November 5, Chamber Music Michigan will present an evening of Hungarian masterworks by Kodaly, Bela Bartok, and Erno Dohnanyi at the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti.
The group has performed in somewhat unconventional surroundings, including churches, libraries, hospitals, assisted living facilities, retirement communities, and even historical landmarks. Funded solely by donations, their concerts are free and open to the public. Founder, artistic director, and master clarinetist Joshua Anderson says they aim to appeal to both connoisseurs of classical music and those who are just discovering it. Chamber music, he feels, should be available to the young and the old, to the wealthy as well as those with little or no disposable income.
The oldest composition on the program will be Dohnanyi’s First Piano Quintet, composed in 1895 when he was eighteen years old and strongly influenced by Johannes Brahms. The program also includes Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello, written in 1914. Beginning in 1905, Kodaly and Bartok laid the groundwork for modern ethnomusicology and their own compositional endeavors by collecting thousands of folk songs from peasants living in the Carpathian Mountains and the Transylvanian Alps. Bartok felt that the soul of the Hungarian people was most beautifully embodied in Kodaly’s works, with their predilection for melancholy and uncertainty. This is especially true of Kodaly’s emotionally charged chamber music. Violinist Danielle Belen observed, “Kodaly can make even the most tightly wound violinist sound like an improvisational magician.”
Belen is similarly smitten with Bartok’s Contrasts, a modernistic set of variations on traditional Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies scored for clarinet, violin, and piano. The work was commissioned in 1938 by American clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman, whose periodic involvement with classical music also included works by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Gershwin. Performing Contrasts, says Belen, requires great concentration because of its unexpected twists and turns, and what she calls Bartok’s planned imperfection. Both violinist and clarinetist alternate between differently pitched instruments. The deliberately mistuned fiddle, she says, takes the music into the realm of the Gypsies, “where playing in tune is never the primary goal.” It’s more about releasing control and letting the heart lead the way. “If I could add a subtitle to this concert,” Belen concludes, “I’d call it Hungarian Masterpieces: Perfectly Imperfect.”