Folk dance or concert hall? American duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw and string quartet Brooklyn Rider take on East European music in two of London’s concert halls.
“We’re musicians who love this music and want to play it!” It seems a simple statement from Jeremy Barnes, accordionist with A Hawk and a Hacksaw (pictured above with Heather Trost), about the Hungarian and Romanian repertoire they were playing in London last night. But how best to present folk repertoire on stage? Ripped from its roots and community it can seem primitive, while dressed in coat-tails it can seem simply picturesque. Yet this rich folk repertoire has inspired some of the best classical music of all time – by composers like Bartók, Kodály and Janácek. But can those who love the traditional, love the classical and vice versa?
The American duo, A Hawk and a Hacksaw were performing with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a concert combining arrangements of traditional repertoire with folk-inspired pieces by Bartók and Ligeti. While coincidentally, a few nights before American string quartet Brooklyn Rider were playing Bartók alongside a new composition inspired by the great Nicolae Neacşu of Taraf de Haidouks.
Bartók is the composer who, more than anyone else, used East European folk music (not just Hungarian) to create a new language in classical music. The Bartók pieces played in these two concerts – the Second String Quartet, the Three Village Scenes, and the Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta – show how unassailable he was at that. For me Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta is the greatest piece of classical music ever written, for its marriage of technical skill, economy of material and emotional depth. But to discover that takes time – which most people aren’t prepared to give.
Groups like Muzsikás, Taraf de Haidouks, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw have brought a new contemporary audience to East European folk – and classical artists can see the potential of tapping into it. The BBC Concert Orchestra concert came from an idea by conductor André de Ridder: “In many ways, Hawk and a Hacksaw are doing what Bartók did,” said the German-born conductor in his introduction to the show, “collecting folk tunes and composing their own music influenced by it.”
A Hawk and a Hacksaw are Heather Trost (violin and vocals) and Jeremy Barnes (accordion), from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They loved Bartók’s music and got hooked on Hungarian and Romanian folk and spent two years living in Budapest. Jeremy Barnes, who looks like a 19th century poet and has a Hungarian moustache to out-rival most Hungarians, says: “I’m a huge fan of Bartók, but we’re doing what he did in a very humble way. We are just doing what musicians do – rearranging music to make it our own. I never wanted to just be a covers band.”
Trost and Barnes did a great section of traditional tunes with Hungarian cimbalom player Balázs Unger and joined in, rather awkwardly with Bartók’s acerbic Three Village Scenes. But best were the traditional pieces from different parts of Hungary and Transylvania, specially arranged by James Redwood. It brought a sense of fun and exhilaration that you rarely see in a symphony orchestra. But it was an arrangement and not really a composition. Much as I love A Hawk and a Hacksaw, I did wonder if it wouldn’t have been better with Hungarian rather than American musicians.
Brooklyn Rider’s (pictured above) late night concert in the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 2 featured Culai, a quartet by Ljova (aka Lev Zhurbin), based in New York who leads a very good group called Ljova & the Kontraband. Of all these transpositions from folk gig to concert hall, this worked the best. ‘Culai’ was the nickname of Nicolai Neacşu, the veteran fiddler and, until his death in 2002, the figurehead of the Romanian band, Taraf de Haidouks. His technique of tying a bow-hair to the lower string of his violin and pulling it with his fingers in his ‘Ballad of the Dictator’ (about Ceauşescu) astonished many, including David Harrington of Kronos and Ljova – who includes the technique twice in Culai as a tribute. This five-movement piece is much easier to grasp than the Bartók Quartet No 2, played alongside it, but will it last for a century in the repertoire as the Bartók has done?
It’s great that Neacşu has inspired a string quartet – he was one of the most inspiring musicians I have ever met – and hopefully there will be more cross-pollination between folk and classical. I’m not sure Bartók can ever be beaten, but let’s try and bring the music of the peasant village and urban concert hall together more often.
The BBC Concert Orchestra with A Hawk and a Hacksaw is broadcast on Friday June 6 at 2pm on BBC Radio 3.