Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bela Bartok in Kansas City

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble on an article about Maurice Ravel's visit to the United States in 1928, which included a stop in my hometown of Kansas City. (KC has a reputation of being a "cow town" rather than a center of music and culture). I wrote about Ravel's visit and began to see that KC was in fact a vibrant center of music in the 1920's, and other luminaries of classical music also performed here. Last month I shared that Sergei Rachmaninoff played 6 concerts in KC in the 1920's and 30's, as well as nearby Lawrence, Topeka, Columbia, Rolla, and Hutchinson. A big reason we were able to lure such great composers to KC was the Pro-Musica Society. This was an organization founded in 1920 to "promote the exchange of musical ideas between Europe and America". Kansas City had a Chapter led by Mrs. George Forsee. I searched the internet repeatedly to learn more about Bartok's visit, as well as the Pro-Muisca Society, and the best reference I could find was a citation for a master's thesis by a woman named Sarah Lucas. As luck would have it, Ms. Lucas had been a graduate student at the University of Missouri in 2012, and her thesis was in the collection at the library there. On a recent trip to St. Louis, I stopped in Columbia and went to the University library and printed a copy of:

Bela Bartok and the Pro-Musica Society
A Chronicle of Piano Recitals in Eleven American Cities During his 1927-1928 Tour
by Sarah M. Lucas

This is a fascinating and detailed research paper that includes programs and reviews of Bartok's performances, as well as other historical and anecdotal references.
On January 23rd, Bartok arrived by train at Union Station in Kansas City. (Ms. Lucas cites a letter from Bartok to his son Peter where he clarifies that Kansas City is in Missouri, not Kansas. Ahh....our glorious state line issue). The recital was in the Ballroom of the Muehlebach Hotel, the same place Ravel gave his recital.  Here is the program:
The Program is hard to read, so I will share it here as well:

Bartok Suite, Op. 14
Kodaly Epitaphe (from Op. 11)
Kodaly Allegro molto (from Op. 3)
Bartok Sonata (1926)
Bartok Burlesque no 2, Dirge, Bear Dance, Evening in the country, Allegro barbaro.

Reviews seem to have been mixed. One reviewer wrote "Bartok's music demands especially attuned ear and mind too, to be at all intelligible. Therefore it either impresses as something akin to a revelation or else as a scarcely articulate experiment, often monotonous and agonizing, and the public's reactions range from warm admiration to violent antagonism". [Vaiani, Kansas City Journal January 24, 1928].

Bartok departed Union Station at 11:40 pm that same day, on his way to St. Paul, MN. He was here less than a day. Bartok died of leukemia in New York City on September 26, 1945. My two favorite works of his are his Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. Here is a link to the Concerto for Orchestra, performed by The Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner. This was recorded in 1955 and remains, in my opinion, the best interpretation of all.