A taste, and more, of Hungary

Monday, March 31, 2003

News Special Writer

It was a question of accent at the weekend's three University Musical Society concerts. Friday evening, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham offered a solo recital at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, with pianist Malcolm Martineau accompanying. Saturday evening, the Takacs String Quartet performed at Rackham Auditorium with the folk ensemble Muzsikas. Sunday, Muzsikas returned to Rackham on its own. And at each event, the interest lay in musical language inflected with the colors and sounds of foreign lands.

Hungary seemed to be on everyone's minds. Indeed, it was the reason the crowd showed up for Saturday and Sunday's concerts. The Takacs, a quartet with Budapest roots (and two current Hungarian members), was set to collaborate with the Hungarian musicians of Muzsikas to shed ethnomusicological light on the music of Bartok and Kodaly. And Muzsikas was poised to elaborate further on Hungarian folk style Sunday afternoon, with help from singer Marta Sebestyen and cimbalom player Kalman Balogh.

But even Graham, expertly piloting the ship of her first big solo recital tour across the United States toward New York's Carnegie Hall, had Hungary on her itinerary.

Graham's vehicle was her opening song set: Brahms' "Zigeunerlieder" ("Gypsy Songs") Op. 103 - vocal companions, if you will, to Brahms' popular Hungarian dances. As it turned out, the eight songs, perhaps more characterfully played by Martineau than sung by Graham, were just a warmup for superb and mostly French things to come. The tessitura of the Brahms didn't flatter Graham's voice as the rest of her chosen repertoire did, and her both her elegance and her knack for sly, knowing delivery found far more fertile ground in the evening's remaining fare.

Graham possesses an enrapturing instrument, a voice that is at once all richness, shimmer and focus: mezzo "buzz" harnessed and energized. In the Debussy "Proses Lyriques" that followed the Brahms, Martineau - who deserved every bit of the applause the audience directed his way - shimmered along with her, and the effect was magical. The luminous serenity of the Debussy, enhanced by Graham's way with French (all those quietly voiced poetic final Es), found its match in the Berg "Sieben Fruhe Lieder" ("Seven Early Songs"), which inhabit a different country but a similar world.

But the French pastries Graham saved for dessert - Poulenc's "Quatre Poemes d'Apollinaire" ("Four Apollinaire Poems") and a set of French operetta songs - stole the show. Shedding the jacket of her black satin gown for a wine feather boa she could toss around and rearrange to suit the mood, using her eyes and her body as much as her voice, Graham had the audience hanging on her every word - and gesture. And that's the way it went through three encores, the last of which, "Sexy Lady," written by Ben Moore especially for Graham as combination curriculum vitae and wry lament for the mezzo's lot, brought down the house.

Friday's concert ended in English. Saturday's began in Hungarian, with a greeting from the affable Daniel Hamar, bassist of Muzsikas and host for the group's combined concert with the members of the Takacs Quartet.

In many ways, Saturday's concert belonged to Muzsikas, and it actually previewed some of the material the group performed again Sunday afternoon. M.C. Hamar did all the talking and explaining; Muzsikas, along with singer Marta Sebestyen, did at least half the performing; and the Takacs players (who smiled and played, but never spoke) seemed on board as "guests" to demonstrate how the Hungarian folk melodies and rhythms Muzsikas played took their seats in Bartok compositions as folk-familiar as the "Rumanian Dances," played in a quartet transcription by Arthur Willner, or as distant as the String Quartet No. 4.

If the evening seemed a little long - the way, often, with such collaborations where each group must have its say - it was also meticulously stitched together, and the effect was to relax the sartorial correctness of the chamber-music experience in a friendly, reinvigorating fashion. The most fun was to be had when the seams were finely sewn, as in the Bartok fourth quartet, where the five movements were interspliced with Hungarian songs and melodies, courtesy of Muzsikas. The approach was unorthodox but as beautiful as it was telling. With the folk music segments as guides, one could detect in the quartet movements the echoes and shadows, rhythmic and melodic, of folkloric material and performance style; the Takacs, meanwhile, played with an outgoing earthy warmth and freedom that seemed an outgrowth of the folk material.

Sunday gave Muzsikas a chance to stretch its legs and have the stage all to itself. I caught most of the Sunday bill, and found the all-Hungarian-folk-music-all-the-time format less intriguing than Saturday's shared program. But it was a rare and welcome opportunity to get to hear Sebestyen sing two days running; it allowed time to savor the delicate embroidery she traces so perfectly around melody notes. It was also interesting to hear Hungarian Jewish village music from Transylvania.

And for those who longed to hear cimbalom player Balogh let loose, Sunday offered that chance, in an extended improvisation in which he was the star.

A9 2003 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission