Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: Feels Bad, Sounds Good

May 8, 2004, 3:49 PM · “Feels bad, sounds good.”

That’s what Maestro Jorge Mester told us folks in the Pasadena Symphony last night as we finally put together one of the myriad ill-fitting puzzle pieces of the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” by Bela Bartok. It was a long night, and Jorge had his hands full, putting many such puzzle pieces in place. He is doing a heroic job, IMO.

Make no mistake, this is a cool piece. A really cool piece. But for us musicians, it’s a bit of a “Feel-Bad” piece. Despite quite a lot of individual and collective practice (and some awesome soloists on piano, celesta and percussion), it remains a challenge.

Jorge gave me an idea with his above comment; I thought I’d describe how it feels to play this piece, from my humble perspective in the FOURTH violins section! So here goes:

I. Andante tranquilo

This is a meterless and meandering movement, which changes with every measure. It feels a little like the first movement of the Bartok Opus Posthumous violin concerto, which I have studied and like quite a lot. But the concerto feels more comfy to me. This movement is rather exposed. How does that feel? Well, like that typical dream people have; you have gone to school or work only to discover that you are not wearing a stitch of clothing. You try to play it cool, to stand behind a plant or drape something conveniently about yourself, but the only thing you can think of is the fact that you aren’t wearing any clothes, and that at some point, someone might start noticing.

II. Allegro

This feels like a fly is zooming uncontrollably and wildly about the room, and your job is to catch it with your bare hands, but not to kill it.

III. Adagio

In this dream you also forgot to put on any clothes, and you are walking on a tightrope, strung between two large skyscrapers, with no net below.

IV. Allegro molto

The fly from the second movement has now grown to be the size of Mothra, and it is chasing you. It chases you up stairways that have locked doors at the end, through mazes and tunnels. You keep bumping into dead ends, turning around, going another way, counting randomly placed measures in quick five. In the end the giant fly swallows you alive, smiles and lets out a big burp.

Well, it’s time to get dressed for the concert! See you on the other side!


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