In the Bartok finale, I feel like a hunted animal

Our diarist Anthea Kreston on returning to the third Bartók string quartet:

What it feels like to play Bartok

Playing in a quartet is challenging in several ways. Technically and intellectually you must be at the top of your game.  It is like a debate team – every musical argument will be picked apart and you must have rock-solid back-up of your points. Emotionally it is a roller-coaster – saving and expending energy alternate constantly (nap on the plane, focus like crazy from 5-10:30 pm), and constant self- and other- criticism is a dangerous tightrope.  Life/work balance is erratic and can’t be fully controlled. And, entering a quartet which has been celebrated continuously for over 25 years, there are expectations from critics, colleagues, and audience which are so demanding, the only way I cope is by completely shutting off that part of my brain. 

When I was a member of the Avalon Quartet, I was a kid – age 21-28.  When we played Bartok, the expectations were – how can I say it – curious and supportive. But now I am on stage with three people who have performed this particular piece perhaps between 50 and 100 times already. And play for an audience who had grown up with those piece and has, most likely, heard every major string quartet live in concert. 

I have to step into my position like a fine-tuned machine, with unshakeable confidence and leadership both technically and emotionally. As a second violinist, my role is many-fold. I must be the “wing-man” for my first violinist – her perfect foil and supporter. When she has the melody (around 80% of the time), I must follow her and at the same time lead the lower voices. I must provide completely solid and reliable intonation, which has a different function and rule every single note. I must step into the role of melodic leader, playing a melody octaves lower, in a bad register, farther away from the audience, and must do it immediately and clearly.  And I must learn the language of this quartet – new ideas and techniques from the ground up (from vibratos, bow technique, a new intonation philosophy, and different structural priorities).  And not let anyone see me sweat or have floppy over-age-40 upper arms. 

So – now I will provide what it feels like for me to play the third Bartok String Quartet, with all of these expectations on the table. 

Back stage, I take some deep breaths, say good luck and see you later to the quartet (it does feel like we take a trip once we step out into the stage – and return to reality after we return backstage after each piece).  Often, when I first walk onto stage, I have a feeling of extreme cold which washes over my body, and I feel light-headed. This clears up a bit when I contact my colleagues, and also I scan the audience and take it all in. I tend to talk to myself silently through the Bartok – I need the encouragement and the warnings of dangers to come. 

The first 4 notes of Bartok 3 are a tone cluster shared by the three lower instruments. These four tones are each a half step from one another, and the opening, haunting and lilting first violin melody contains all of the other 8 notes, to complete the 12 tones in an octave. The problem with these first 4 notes is that they are technically unreliable. The first can be set – a solid note from the cello. The second, however, is also played by the cello, in a slur, and is a harmonic. This poses 3 problems – how to make the bow sound the same with a separate vs. slurred articulation, and how to make a solid note and double stop harmonic sound the same, and to speak in a clean rhythm. Depending on what happens, the third tone, played by the viola, responds to the tempo and articulation of the cello, and I have just a split second to respond. Then, I breath. I say to myself – “you’ve got this – the rest of the 1st page you can totally do”.  As I work my way through that first page, my pulse lowers, my focus calms and i steel myself for the next section. 

As I reach to turn the page, I say “ok now – keep it together and focus, you can do it”. There are 2 hard passages in this next page – one for counting and one for group matching.  My pulse rises, I feel my cheeks heating up, but I know I have a calming moment before I have to lock it down and work my way through the mine-field of the second section. 

Pages 3,4 and 5 are for me, the most demanding. Any slight mis-step by any member sends an immediate shockwave through the ensemble. The rhythm must fit seamlessly, and we all must be ready to adjust.  It also awakens in me an animal instinct. It is like I can turn into an actual animal – fight/flight or a lion on the hunt. Total focus, total control, total animal instinct. The other week, my animal instinct took over to such an intense degree, I felt like I was in a sound tunnel. I could only hear my blood coursing through my ears – everyone seemed far away, and I could feel my heart – like there was someone actually thumping on my chest with all their might. I was in total control, but later I realized that this was dangerous – I couldn’t completely let my animal out again. I pulled myself back from the brink, looking ahead to the 2 pages before the coda, where the quartet has a time to step back, to contemplate and weave together long slow melodies.  I spent the first of these two pages just getting myself back to human, and was able to flow and engage through the second of these slow pages. 

But – I can see the final page turn – it is already deeply creased, and darkened by the many times I have grabbed it to turn quickly, but quietly. The coda. Oh my god. 

“Ok, you can do this. You can do this.  Just two more pages”.  My eyes focus, and it seems like I am looking through a telescope at my music. This is extremely fast, the rhythmic dialogue is constantly changing, and there is no moment to regroup. I slow down time – I stretch out every measure like it is made of silly putty, and I feel like my hearing is so clear, so in focus – like I have 4 sets of Bose headphones on, one for each of us.  Here too, the animal takes over, which I think it should, but not like an animal on the hunt, but an animal hunted. Every step can be a trap, every move on my periphery could have the tip of an arrow pointed at me, a red mark of a rifle sight on my chest. I have to dodge and attack, and finally, for final last line, we hold hands, all together, for a devastating final blow. 

When the audience begins to clap, I sometimes feel like someone has dumped a bucket of cold water on me, or I feel like crying, I am so overwhelmed – in every way. We don’t look at one another until we reach back stage. I hear sighs, see rings of sweat marks on the floor around each of our areas as we return to the stage, finally able to smile and become human once more. 

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  • Any tips for the audience? I’ve found his string quartets dry, aggressive, edgy and overall very tough to take.

    • Ravi –
      This is an excellent question – I am recently obsessed with the flip side of what we do – for example the expectations and experiences of the audience. For me, with Bartok, a little bit of reading about his life, and also listening to his original wax cylinder recordings (or other folk recordings from those areas) helps me get perspective. Kindof like going to Venice, or looking at photos of Venice, and then looking at famous paintings of those churches and buildings – from Canaletto to contemporary. I don’t know if it helps to look/listen from several perspectives at once, but it can enhance the experience for me.
      Thanks for reading!
      Anthea

        • Dear Alan,
          My first official recording session with quartet is next season – all Shostakovich. Then we start on a Bartok Box. I am sure some live recordings are floating about – more often than not those hanging mics are dangling when we play.
          Thanks!
          Anthea

      • I’ve tried background reading in the past but it has not helped me with his quartets or the violin concertos. Maybe there isn’t an answer – Venice left me cold as well. I can see how performers would relish the challenge, as you have. I’ve enjoyed learning and playing some accessible ‘modern-ish’ piano pieces while preferring to listen to older music.

  • Presumably the Artemis quartet is named after the Greek goddess who had a hunting bow. So this fright and flight is perhaps appropriate.

  • And a visit to his last european residence, his villa in the quiet, hilly suburbs of Budapest, which is now a museum, was very inspiring for me…

  • Reiner takes his own arm rest and Bartok’s and elbows poor Bartok out of the way. Nu? Glad I never had an airline seat next to him.

  • That was an amazing blog piece. I felt I was following you on a rollercoaster ride with all your emotions and thoughts pounding through the music. I felt exhausted at the end too, even though I had not heard a note of the piece, it was all in my head. Bravo

  • I enjoyed this very much! As a sometimes quartet second violinist, I can relate to some of the things you talk about. But most of all I enjoyed hearing about the various thoughts that go through your mind while performing. It was just great!

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