SFJAZZ Founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline made a bold move in inviting the members of the Calder Quartet (violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist Eric Byers) to contribute three concerts to the current SFJAZZ season in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center. This series of concerts is being called The Bartók Cycle, because the primary objective is to review the six string quartets that Béla Bartók composed over his lifetime. The performances also include guest artists, and the goal seems to be to cultivate an appreciation for Bartók within the SFJAZZ community of jazz listeners. Last night Calder Quartet gave the first concert in this set, including the first and fourth of Bartók’s quartets in their program.
As Kline observed in his opening remarks, Bartók’s music was known and loved by many of the truly great jazz masters. My favorite example comes from Lewis Porter’s book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, which identifies the wide intervals at the beginning of Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” as the inspiration for “Giant Steps.” (I also had a chance to talk with Mose Allison about Bartók, but there were too many expletives for me to reproduce his admiring observations.)
On the other hand Kline fumbled a bit over Bartók’s own closest encounter, so to speak, with jazz, when he wrote his “Contrasts” trio for clarinet, violin, and piano. Bartók wrote this on a commission from Benny Goodman, who gave the first performance of the final three-movement version of the piece in a Carnegie Hall recital with violinist Joseph Szigeti and Bartók himself on piano. Kline also neglected to mention that “Contrasts” was given a thoroughly kick-ass jazzy account when violinist Ian Swensen gave his Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) at the beginning of this month, performing with two SFCM alumni.
Still, the evening was about Bartók, rather than about how Kline introduced him. In fairness, however, I should note that the gentleman in front of me (whom I assisted in finding his seat) made it clear that he was there because bassist Christian McBride was performing as guest artist. This individual did not return after the intermission. In spite of his reaction, it would be fair to say that, after several decades of neglect, interest in Bartók seems to be on the rise again. I must confess to personal pleasure in this particular change of trends; and, if it means that a new generation of jazz musicians will find their own discoveries in Bartók’s scores, then so much the better. However, as journeys of discovery go, last night was not a particularly satisfying endeavor.
Calder opened with the first quartet, and their account of the first movement was particularly promising. Bartók was in his twenties when he wrote this quartet, and he used it to explore some rather adventurous approaches to an interplay of voices in counterpoint that would reveal new perspectives on dissonance. Those perspectives would then follow through to some striking moments of chord formation and harmonic progression, all couched in the somewhat melancholy rhetoric of a Lento tempo. This turned out to be a moody introduction to a more disciplined approach to sonata form in the second movement, in which Bartók would pursue his ongoing project of exploring new ways to make sounds with conventional stringed instruments.
After this promising start, however, things fell apart in the final movement. Structurally, this followed up on the conventions of the second movement. However, this final movement was also supposed to sparkle with wit, allowing the clouds of the first two movements to burn away under a dazzling sun. Bartók could be as cheerful as he could be moody. Unfortunately, it seems as if the Calder players were so focused on their individual parts that none of the joyful rhetoric behind the music was given a chance to emerge.
Still, their approach to the first quartet at least bordered on acceptable, which is more than can be said about their treatment of the fourth. Twenty years elapsed between these two quartets, during which Bartók accumulated considerable experience leading to many exciting results. The fourth quartet emerged as one of his major architectural endeavors. It consists of five movements with a particularly adventurous slow (Non troppo lento) movement as the central core. There are then mirror relationships between the two preceding and two following movements, making for one of the most exciting “grand designs” in the chamber music repertoire.
Unfortunately, Calder decided to mess with this design by inserting “interludes” alternating with Bartók’s five movements. One of those interludes seems to have been the witty interjection of one of György Kurtág’s microscopic compositions. Some of them seem to have involved improvisations with McBride contributing. None of this made much sense except to make the evening feel a bit more “jazzy,” although it may also have been a ploy to distract the serious listener from the fact that the Calder players brought far less certainty and confidence to their reading of the fourth quartet than they had summoned for the first two movements of the first.
McBride took one extended solo of his own during the first half of the program, immediately following the first quartet. I could appreciate why the gentleman in front of me had come to listen to him. McBride commands an impressive breadth of technique reinforced with an imaginative capacity for inventiveness. He struck me as a musician who appreciated that the Prelude movements for each of Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites for solo cello had all emerged from improvisatory exploration. Indeed, I could see him take on one of those movements, beginning by honoring what Bach wrote and then going off in his own directions, all in ways that probably would have made Bach himself smile.
Perhaps the problem with the whole idea behind the Calder visit is that Bartók’s music really does not lend itself to such liberties in performance. Bartók could summon up awesomely ear-bending sonorities. However, the music comes from an expressive interpretation that understands all the marks he put on the paper before then committing to the task of turning those marks into music. Calder does not yet seem particularly comfortable with the marks on the paper, and the program they prepared seemed designed to distract the serious listener from the possibility that they had not yet really found the music behind those marks.