Most people who have taken even the broadest music history class have encountered the part where you read about several major composers who have, at least in part, relied on  folk music from their cultures as a basis for some of their compositions. The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák even crossed nationalities and used indigenous American music in several of his greatest works, including his cello concerto. Most of us have just taken this book learnin’ at its face value but have never really experienced the actual musical relationship between folk and European concert music – that is, until this concert.

In the past decade, the Takács Quartet has become a frequent visitor to Duke University, generally as part of the Chamber Arts Society’s presentations. They are considered one of the finest and most elegant string quartets in the world, but this time they shared a wonderfully unique program that explored the relationship between Béla Bartók and the folk music of their native Hungary. Joining them was the Hungarian string band Muzsikás and the remarkable vocalist Márta Sebestyén. This was definitely not going to be your father’s chamber music concert – in fact, it turned out to be revelatory, educational, and quite simply one of the most musically enlightening experiences that I have encountered.

Muzsikás began the show, and at first it seemed that the level of playing didn’t belong on the same stage as the Takács Quartet, but that quickly changed. They began with “Dances from Transylvania.” which can best be described as Hungarian bluegrass. After that, we were introduced to the exotic (to us) instruments that this group played. Spokesman Dániel Hamar played bass, sang, and also played an instrument called the gardon. While it looks like a viola da gamba, it is actually more of a percussion instrument. Péter Éri played viola and mandolin and sang, but his featured instrument was a very long flute with which he produced vocal sounds while playing. Mihály Sipos and László Porteleki were primarily fiddlers. We even got to hear several original wax cylinders of this fascinating music.

When Hamar said that you can hear folk music influences on nearly every measure of Bartók’s music, including such complex and modern works as his fourth string quartet, most people, including me, thought, “yeah right – show me!” They did just that. The Takács Quartet then came out to play this epochal work but with a huge difference – between each movement, various members of Muzsikás and singer Sebestyén displayed the origins of the musical material used in Bartók’s fourth quartet. As expected, Takács played with nearly unbelievable technical brilliance, but it was this immediate juxtaposition of the music of the peasants and the apex of 20th century classical music that was truly revelatory – it completely changed the way I will always listen to Bartók. One of the many fascinating features of this was the origin of the famous “Bartók Pizzicato,” which was first played on the gardon and then in the Bartók Quartet.   

The second half continued in much the same vein as these two seemingly disparate worlds showed how they are one on the same continuum. Several of Bartók’s forty-four violin duos were played, and this relationship became even more pronounced. By this time all nine musicians were on stage whether or not they were playing, and the more relaxed, even party atmosphere prevailed over the usual staid string quartet concert. The violin duos were shared by Károly Schranz, second violinist of Takács, and Sipos, of Muzsikás – a very passionate and lively player. The cultural differences were stark and somewhat amusing as Sipos, dancing while playing, tried to get the “classical” violinist Schranz to join in – but he would have none of that! After all of the mostly upbeat and up tempo works, one of the most moving moments came in a ballad called “Ballad of the Murdered Shepherd.” Sebestyén was mesmerizing and unearthly along with violin and vocal-induced flute.

This remarkable evening ended with a transcription for strings of Bartók’s well-known Romanian Folk Dances. Unlike the quartets and other abstract works, the six dance melodies of this collection are explicitly based on folksongs that Bartók himself collected during field trips in Hungary from 1910-14. By the end, this became a glorious jam session with everyone playing, although, in demeanor, the difference in the two camps was quite marked. While all members of Muzsikás played without music, standing up and moving around the stage, the Takács Quartet remained anchored in their chairs, relatively motionless, and glued to their music. This is perhaps a topic for sociological musicologists, but it was of very little consequence to the listener.

With all the anguish and hand wringing over shrinking audiences, this concert was a jewel to display what creative music programming can be. There is a real hunger from audiences for something other than the standard formulaic classical concert, and this one showed, using established artists, that if they build it they will come. Kudos to Duke Performances and its director Aaron Greenwald for taking a big step towards a new concert experience.