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When in Romany

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
04/12/2001 -  
Albert Doppler: Fantasie Pastorale Hongroise
Bela Bartok: Contrasts
Ernst von Dohnanyi: from Ruralica Hungarica
Liszt Ferenc: Hungarian Rhapsodies # 3 & 11
Traditional Gypsy Music

Szaszcsavas Band
Perspectives Ensemble
Traditional Gypsy Musicians

“You threw your baby into the fire!
Then who am I?”

Manrico to Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore

If the Gypsies did not exist, it would have been necessary for the Romantics to invent them. In what ethnologist Jean-Paul Clebert has labeled “…the need for an interior exoticism…”, artists of the nineteenth century began to grapple for the first time with the art of describing the stirrings of natural and preternatural feelings common to us all. Almost immediately, Gypsy characters became stereotypical, either inhabitants of the forge, with its connotation of the netherworld (Wagner’s Mime, Verdi’s anvil chorus, and, in literature, Bulwer-Lytton’s Egyptian guardians of the entrance to Vesuvius) or, of course, fortune-tellers (here a survey of Verdi will suffice: Azucena, Preziosilla, and the even more sinister Ulrica). Ethnomusicology, itself a nineteenth century invention, commenced almost immediately on the study of Gypsy influences through the monumental work of Franz Liszt, whose enthusiastic account was undoubtedly influential on later generations of scholars, particularly Bela Bartok. For its second week of examination of this subject, the 92nd St. Y focused this evening on the music of the Gypsies of Hungary.

At the Lexington Avenue station, where I change subway trains to travel to the upper east side and the Tisch concert hall, the obligatory platform musician was playing the Brahms Hungarian Dance # 1 on his violin, hoping to elicit coins from passers-by. Nothing could have been a more appropriate introduction to this evening of peasant and art music, for the piece is a fine example of the nineteenth century’s confusion of things Hungarian and Gypsy. Brahms, whose first important musical assignment was as the accompanist for Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi on a European tour, wrote several compositions which incorporated the music of the Gypsies, either labeled as such or with the more general appellation “Hungarian”. Even natives of the region like Liszt confused the two art forms. His Hungarian Rhapsodies use as their root material standard Gypsy violin melodies. It was not until a new century and the extensive studies of Bartok that a more distinct music of the ethnic Magyars was identified and explored (listen to the intensely “foreign” element in Bluebeard’s Castle to appreciate the difference).

The order of programming was much more satisfying this week than it was last, when the Y surveyed the music of the Spanish Gypsies. Tonight the “classical” and folk pieces were intertwined, not only creating a more varied entertainment, but helping to emphasize their inherent musical kinships. For example, a verbunk (a type of dance music used by the Gypsies to lure Hungarian locals to enlist in the Hapsburg armies during the Napoleonic Wars) played by the Szaszcsavas Band immediately preceded Bartok’s Contrasts, which itself opens with the same type of set piece (noted in the score as “verbunkos”). As was the case last week, the art pieces were competently, but not exceptionally, performed. The Bartok reading was notable for its accuracy but not especially lively, as if the spirit of the region had been accidentally excised. Any trio which attempts this polyrhythmic work must compete against the original combo of Benny Goodman, Szigeti and Bartok, wonderfully preserved on both LP and CD. What was missing tonight were the strident accents of Goodman, whose serious performing skills were prodigious if hidden under the bushel of swing music. Other of the mainstream pieces were ephemeral, the Doppler flute work a harmless pastiche of banalities reminiscent of the concertina music of The Great Regondi, a Lisztian discovery whose compositional career parallels that of the evolution of the music for another new art form, the circus.

Without the concave mirror of Western European sophistication, the original music was really quite amusing. The six string instruments which comprise the Szaszcsavas were played with just the right sense of atavistic drive, the two violas (known as kontras) not held under the chin but rather straight out from the chest, their function as purely instruments of rhythm (cf. the guitar in American bluegrass) prompting their owners to bob up and down while their violin mates stood stock still (and unsmiling) when spinning out the melodies. As this is music with a purely aural tradition, it tends to be very repetitious and, ultimately, a little tedious, but this performance by such authentic performers allowed me to close my eyes and imagine Bartok with his little tape recorder, roaming the Carpathian mountains trying to capture this illusory art before it faded into the void forever.

The most impressive performance of the evening was that of Kalman Balogh, a conservatory trained Gypsy specialist of the cimbalom. His instrument looks like a toy piano from afar; in close-up it is actually a soundboard rendered horizontal, the strings exposed and awaiting either a pounding with various densities of sticks or a plucking with the fingers. In Mr. Balogh’s masterful hands, this unique sound becomes an entire universe of interlaced melody and harmony, a metallic cornucopia of interesting ideas and possibilities. Hearing this traditional music reminds the serious listener of Kodaly (interestingly enough, Bartok did not write for this instrument, its “piano as percussion” sonority so suggestive of his klangfarbenmelodie) or Stravinsky, and the creators of this fascinating program missed a good bet by not encouraging Balogh to favor us with a more distinguished piece of “art music”. However, his traditional sounds were magically dexterous and evocative and certainly rare in the hothouse atmosphere of the New York classical scene.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt (I grew up with the Romanian Gypsy tradition and its music), but I found the music of the Gitanos far more interesting than that of the Hungarian Roma. Where the Spanish aesthetic is rhythmic complexity carried to a degree more advanced than any Western music before 1950, the Hungarian is quite simplistic and, although charming, somewhat quotidian. These programs were designed to allow us to contrast the music of the Gypsies with that of the mainstream classics; for me, the bigger distinction lies in the music of the differing Gypsy tribes. An intelligent listener to both concerts will at least come away with the illusion broken that the Gypsies are a homogenous lot. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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