by Robert Leeper
In the years before the World War I, Béla Bartók traveled the countryside in his native Hungary and the surrounding areas collecting, cataloging, and even primitively recording folk music of the native peoples, traveling to Transylvania, Bulgaria, and even North Africa in pursuit of his ethnomusicological obsession. Not to be deterred by the war—when he was excused from military service for health reasons—the government sent him and his fellow collector, Zoltán Kodály, into military camps to collect folk songs from soldiers.
The Calder Quartet, an adventurous quartet conceived at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California, has been focusing on Bartok's string quartets this season at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite Bartók's small output of vocal works, the group has paid homage to the composer's journeys in search of his native folk music by featuring guests on each program who help the quartet to explore the vocal aspects of his music.
On Friday evening at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, the ensemble finished their quartet cycle by taking the stage with the entrancing Czech violinist, singer, and composer Iva Bittová, presenting a program including Bartók's Second and Sixth quartets, as well as songs and works by Leoš Janáček and Bittová, and free improvisations.
The final piece of the evening was the Sixth Quartet, and Calder took on each quicksilver exchange of material—smoothly incorporating the clever inversions and lithe intertwining motifs into a cohereant and unified piece.
Far and away the best guest the group has collaborated with over the course of the series, Iva Bittová challenged assumptions that serious music had to be presented in a starkly serious fashion, and her strange off-kilter presence brought a welcome lightness to the stage. Her solo for violin and voice that began the set featured drones from the violin and odd noises interspersed with gorgeous singing and the occasional birdsong, all with a distinctly Eastern sound.
Throughout a performance that ranged from songs of daily life to more momentous subjects of fate, she actively portrayed the words she was singing, and every note was reflected in her smiling, laughing, spinning, and dancing. This sense of childlike wonder she brought did not infer simplicity by any stretch, but her sense of freedom seemed to flow freely around the stage, with the quartet also appearing to have the most fun they had had at any of their performances of this cycle.
The extensive use of drone notes in her music summoned ancient Eastern European or Middle Eastern folk music. Sprinkled in between Janáček's and Bartók's folk songs, the sincerity with which she approached the music of her native Czech roots was inspiring, beautiful, and a joy to behold.