Zoltan Kodaly
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Timken Museum of Art

1500 El Prado, Balboa Park

The final Timken Museum Mainly Mozart concert was a rough one for me. There were two pieces of music on the program, Kodaly’s Serenade for Two Violins and Viola and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9.

The setting in the Timken was great for a chamber concert. The performance was top notch and there was champagne. Why was this a struggle?

I have become a lazy audience member. I’ve become overfed on orchestral pieces and operas that entertain with their sound effects, broad dynamics, and spectacle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that opera and orchestral music is akin to the sensory barrage known as a summer blockbuster. What I am saying is that chamber music is the ultimate musical experience but you have to increase your musical fitness in order to relax into it as an audience member.

Perhaps a running comparison might work here. A Tchaikovsky overture could be thought of as a 5K. A Beethoven symphony could be a 10K. A Bruckner, Mahler, or late-Sibelius symphony would be like a half marathon. Any opera is a marathon for most folks. Any Wagner opera after Lohengrin is a 50 mile-ultra-marathon.

Where does that leave chamber music? Chamber music is akin to the Badwater 135 — a 135 mile run from Death Valley to the Mt Whitney Portals. Oh, and it’s held in late July.

I’m not saying that chamber music is grueling. I am saying that it narrows the playing field — considerably.

There is no where to hide in a chamber music concert, and that applies to the composer, the performers, and for the audience.

There’s the rub. How can I say my musical fitness was challenged? All I did was sit there and listen. What about the performers?

In this case, the performers were William Preucil and Alexandra Preucil on violin, with Che-Yen Chen on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello.

During the Kodaly, I found myself falling into the trap of post-Beethoven music. What is the trap? Searching for a program or a meaning to inform the music.

We rarely do this with music composed before Beethoven. I’ve never listened to a Mozart quartet and tried to feel what he was trying to express. The music itself is the meaning. Mozart’s music wasn’t all about Mozart all the time.

We could get into the deep end here and look at the idea of musicians who were considered and treated as servants — Bach, Haydn, Mozart versus musicians who were considered and treated like artists — everyone after Beethoven — but we’ll save it for another day.

The Kodaly trio, specifically the second movement, was full of textures and effects that were outside the normal ear candy we might be used to. I accepted the temptation to try to figure out what the artist was trying to express. This is an endless rabbit hole that will make your brain hurt almost as much as choosing Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as your summer pleasure reading.

What if Kodaly’s music was just about itself? What if he wasn’t trying to express the Hungarian mindset after the utter collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I? What if it wasn’t a rebuttal to the broken promises of the Age of Reason or the social-economic plight of Hungarian gypsies?

What if Kodaly was simply sharing new dimensions of music and sound that he thought worthy of our attention? Every piece of music need not be a movie soundtrack trying to tell a story.

The performance of both the Kodaly and the Beethoven quartet was astonishing. As I mentioned, there is no place for the musicians to hide. If there is any moment of uncertainty on their part, it will be obvious to all.

Of course, these musicians weren’t interesting in hiding. They were there to light the path and show us the way.

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