My intense and exhausting pleasure of hearing the foursome play these works last year still casts shadows over my listening today. I was therefore thrilled to have the chance to talk with violinist Kristopher Tong about the forthcoming surfeit on December 20th. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful! Just ask Mae West or Kris.
BJS: Kristopher, the Borromeo has been performing all six Bartok quartets for some time now, since before you joined them. What was it like to confront those works with them? Has it changed over time? I was taken with your performance last year [my review here]; has anything surprising happened in your reading of the pieces?
KT: I have an interesting history with the Borromeo. I studied at New England Conservatory and met them as faculty when I was doing my Masters’ Degree. One of the most memorable concerts I experienced as a student was seeing them perform the complete Bartok Cycle in Jordan Hall, something that seemed absolutely gargantuan and impossible to me at the time. It was a couple of years into my time with the quartet that we revisited the project.
We have a tendency to dive into a given composer’s work for a period of time, thanks in part with our history of concerts at the Gardner Museum. It has been a real education: the first time we performed the Bartok cycle together was my very first time performing the Sixth Quartet. Since then we have spent time with each of the pieces apart from the cycle. We’ve coached them with students. We’ve performed the cycle many times. We’ve played a lot of Beethoven, we’ve played a lot of Bach. Each of us has done a lot of teaching in the interim. All of these things change your perspective. They give you new ways of looking at your art, new ways to approach even those pieces which feel like ‘old friends’. Your relationship to significant works evolves as you evolve. Every time you perform, you are bringing something to life which has never happened before…I don’t know if you will be ‘surprised’ in December, but I certainly hope that what you hear sounds vital and renewed.
Does the experience of playing the quartets all at once change the way you approach them interpretively? I know I hear them differently when hearing them all at once; I almost can’t appreciate the Sixth in isolation any longer.
So called ‘Marathon’ concerts can be gimmicky, more a marketing than a musical statement. I think this cycle of Bartok Quartets is really different. You hear the evolution of his language as you move through the works, from Romantic virtuoso in No. 1 to someone really finding his own language in the Second Quartet. By the end of that piece we are on the way out, and No. 3 is really a radical change. You hear him honing in on a kind of symmetry, a kind of precision and perfection in the counterpoint and the structure through Four and Five; to me number Five is one of these examples of perfect writing. It is like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, in the way it achieves this symmetry and through its intensely personal and distinct harmonic language. It is the pinnacle of the mountain. What we find in number Six feels to me almost like what happens in Late Beethoven. The technique is all there, but now it is being used in a way which is so personal, so expressively specific. Somehow hearing that work in the context of what leads up to it drives that point home. When you’ve conquered every mountain what is it that you really are trying to say? The historical context of the piece is moving (given Bartok’s biography and the state of international affairs), but the work isn’t just sad, it’s tragic. The expression transcends the local circumstances of the composer and moves into the realm of that which is ‘grave and constant’ in human experience, to use Joyce’s words.
Wow…Joyce is one of the authors who has had a major impact of on my life! But I had to look up your reference in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (my Joyce is primarily that of Ulysses). I had forgotten it was used to connect the emotions of pity and terror, which Stephen Dedalus says are the components of tragedy. There is terror aplenty in the 4th and 5th quartets, but not much pity. Nevertheless, that quote has opened a new path to the work for me…
Glad to have made this connection! Joyce is one of my great ‘heroes.’ If we want to follow this train of thought, I think we have to read Stephen Dedalus’ definitions of pity and terror rather carefully. With regards to the tragic emotion he says that, “Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” In this sense, I read ‘pity’ as something which is not condescending to any particular group or set of concerns, but has a larger, perhaps more empathetic bent; we are united with the human sufferer in the presence of that which is grave and constant in human suffering. So when I refer to the tragic sense in Bartok’s Sixth Quartet, I am really referring to the part of the expression which goes beyond the circumstances in the world at the time, or in his life. He touches on something much, much larger. Of course we feel this immediately in all of those great works of Schubert, who I think of as perhaps the most tragic composer. There is less pity in Beethoven, but that is probably because there is less tragedy. So called ‘proper’ art may be tragic, or they may be comedic; the operative emotion in comedic art is joy. Can you think of a more joyous composer than Beethoven? (Stephen apparently discusses comedy a little bit in ‘Stephen Hero’, an earlier version of what became the ‘Portrait’, but he basically leaves it out in the later book. Ironically Joyce wrote that he favored comedy over tragedy, and found it to be the higher form.) But both aspects are transcendent. I think that is the thing I feel in the Sixth Quartet. It goes to a place which is really beyond most music.
I’ve been told that the Borromeo has played from sketches or rejected movements from Bartok. Can you give me any insight into what “new” music you’ve found?
Nick (Kitchen) has done some research in Budapest. In examining the manuscripts for the quartets he discovered a number of fragments, rewrites, and music you’ve simply never heard before, including a lively, triumphant 4th movement to the Sixth Quartet (!). We’ve played these fragments and done presentations of them, one of which we will do in Washington, D.C. in advance of playing the cycle at the Library of Congress on December 18th. They are certainly fascinating…that partial movement in the Sixth is incomplete. I think it’s safe to say he simply didn’t feel that this music was the appropriate finish to the piece, given the circumstances in his life, and in the world at that time.
That’s fascinating! Do you think that alternative finale would it have made sense if, for example, the war had somehow come to an early close, and his illness cured? In other words, does it fit with the other movements musically and structurally enough to be convincing on its own terms?
It is really impossible to know how the piece would have resonated over time without the ‘Mesto’ material which is such a definitive part of the piece. I cannot really imagine the Sixth Quartet without that music. The fragment of the finale (again, it is incomplete) has some really beautiful material, including some driving music which sounds like Concerto for Orchestra, and a positively Hungarian middle section, complete with folk-melody. But much of it is raw and unpolished I have no doubt that, perfectionist that he was, had he gone through with completing this movement he would have made it thoroughly convincing. But again, what he did eventually give us is so singular and beautiful, I cannot really imagine the piece otherwise. I’m not sure what a change in the historical events would have done to Bartok’s music. The idea of home, of a world that no longer exists except in memory is universally compelling. And, illness or not, mortality is one of those inevitables we all have to reckon with, eventually.
Speaking of mortality… One assumes that playing all six quartets is especially grueling – is that so? If so, what do you need to do to prepare or recover from the experience?
It really is a workout. This isn’t something you can ‘cram’ for. Certainly you have to be in playing shape as individuals, but the endurance and the intense concentration required for over two and a half hours of playing is something which you develop over time, over years and years of experience. Everyone has a different relationship to the physical strains of concertizing (and for such unusual projects as this), but for me, exercising has really been life changing. I started running off and on about six years ago, and I ran my first marathon this past October. You utilize a lot of the same skills – you learn how to manage effort, how to cultivate economy in your technique. I didn’t get to practice violin as much as I would have liked when I was in marathon training, but I think I actually got better as a violinist. Now I’m trying to merge that with practicing more again.
That’s interesting: when I take long runs, I find that you experience the fifth mile of a 6 mile run much differently than the fifth mile of a 15 mile run. Are there any specific moments in an early quartet that you experience differently knowing that the later quartets are to come? Or vice versa – does anything happen differently in the 5th quartet when you know the audience has had the opportunity to hear all the that precedes it?
Well, conserving one’s energy is a very important part of marathoning, but I don’t really like to think of our concerts that way. You don’t want to be ‘saving’ anything in any one of these pieces; each one of them is a masterpiece worthy of a standalone performance. I do think that somehow being on stage that long, though, can put you in a kind of zone, if things are going well, which is pretty rarified air. I don’t think that we consciously ‘interpret’ differently in that context, but our preparation between all six pieces inevitably pays dividends in the ways that the common links between them become much clearer. There are some structural things, the idea of an arch structure, for example which is so often discussed with regards to the Fourth and Fifth quartets, which have precedent in the Second, and even the First quartet which may not be immediately obvious if you’re not looking for it. Certainly the way the counterpoint and the harmonic language evolves is something one senses moving through the cycle. But at any given moment, I think you have to commit to the logic of the piece you are playing, on its own terms, as if it were the first time you ever heard such a thing. That is sort of another constant challenge, being genuinely creative, versus ‘reciting’ what you know.
You’ve been with the Borromeo for ten years now. Have some reflections to offer on your journey from “newest member” to what was already an established quartet, to part of an institution now celebrating its 25th year?
Ten years isn’t really as long as it sounds, which is a lesson I everybody learns one way or another. Committing to a life in music, and to a particular ensemble and a particular group of people is a big investment, and to be honest with you, not every day is a picnic. But the commitment is everything. It’s the only way to really grow together. I happened to join at a time of life where there is a lot of change for anybody (I was 24 at the time), so for me personally there was a lot to get used to. But it is always a privilege. I got a chance to continue to get better, to continue to learn, and not just through playing, but also through teaching. I feel incredibly lucky. At first I felt a lot of pressure to be worthy of the opportunity I was being given, and rightfully so. Over time, though, I’ve tried to let go of that. This thing we do, music, is not really about showcasing our talents, it’s about sharing something with people. I think that we have to be authentic and sincere in our expression, and that is ultimately what communicates. Of course it helps to communicate clearly if your words aren’t garbled, and so we are always searching for a higher and higher standard to apply to ourselves, and so this is sort of the cycle of things we ‘struggle with’ day to day. Or, as my old teacher (Franco Gulli) used to say, ‘If Beethoven wrote an F, you should play an F! But…there are more important things.’
Twenty-four sounds impossibly young for someone to join such a quartet. They must have seen something quite dramatic in you. Did you feel impossibly young then? How do you see that 24-year-old version of you now?
I suppose whether you are relatively ‘young’ or ‘old’ you never really look at yourself any differently. I was certainly excited, elated to have the opportunity. I became very passionate about chamber music and string quartet in particular in my time as a grad student in Boston. I went to school with a lot of amazing people who are really doing it out there: all of the Jupiters and the Parkers were classmates of mine, and of course a number of other quartets who came through Paul Katz’s Professional String Quartet program at NEC, amongst others. I remember listening to the Parkers play 132 during my first semester at NEC. They got to the end of the Heiliger Dankgesang and I was just floored, I couldn’t believe that making music like that was possible and I knew that I had to do this. Of course, they were all younger than me (and still are)! So obviously when the opportunity came I seized it right away. But it wasn’t easy. It was my first time performing concerts on a regular basis. It was my first time not having lessons. It was my first time having so much music to learn and having no time to practice. Traveling. And then there was a whole world of social complications which came from starting to teach in a place where I had just gone to school, and where many of my friends were still enrolled. There are so many challenges to having and sustaining a professional career in music, and perhaps even more so in a string quartet, and nothing can really prepare you for everything that you have to go through. Musically, personally, etc. I’m not sure I would wish it on anybody, but I’m incredibly grateful that I got the opportunity that I did. I’ve learned so much since then, and it really does feel like we’re just getting started.