About two decades ago, the violist Kim Kashkashian learned a piece by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag, a giant in avant-garde musical circles whose eminence stands in inverse proportion to the paucity of his output. Kashkashian, who was living in Freiburg, Germany, at the time, had heard that Kurtag was “hanging out” in Budapest, and she did “what any conscientious musician would,” she said in a recent phone interview. She went to play “Jelek,” for solo viola, for the composer.
That experience, she went on, was like “walk[ing] into the middle of a tornado, or an ocean, or something that is indescribable.” Indeed, that encounter would prove so significant as to mark a turning point on Kashkashian’s path as a musician.
Not that it was a particularly pleasant experience. “His coaching style is pretty unbearable, most of the time,” the violist said. Kurtag’s music is notable for its extreme austerity, the way every phrase is stripped to its bare essentials. Its impact can be shockingly direct, and to achieve that puts huge weight on every note, every gesture. “He’ll stop you after two notes,” she said. “And he’ll do that again, and again, and again, until you get it the way he hears it — or you’re in a puddle on the floor. One of those two things.
“And if that second one happens,” she continued, “he’ll stop and say, ‘Why are you crying? We’re all one musical family.’ Meaning, don’t take it personally. We’re all working toward the same goal here.”
In Kashkashian’s case, they spent six hours together and never got through the first of the six small pieces that make up “Jelek,” the whole of which can be performed in under 10 minutes. She was exhausted, and had to take the night train back to Freiburg to take care of her daughter.
“And I looked at him and said, ‘I think I’ll be back.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think you will be back.’ ”
Kashkashian’s deep affinity with Kurtag’s music, which began with that extreme encounter, will be on display in a special program she brings Friday to Music Mountain, in Falls Village, Conn. Selections from Kurtag’s “Signs, Games, and Messages,” a compendium of solo viola pieces, will intermingle with the movements of two solo cello suites by Bach — the G major in the concert’s first half, the C major in the second.
The idea came from the composer himself, who has regularly played four-hand piano concerts with his wife that mix his own pieces with Bach arrangements. (Writing about one such concert in The New Yorker, Alex Ross called their performance of a movement from a Bach cantata “one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.”) About a decade ago Kashkashian asked Kurtag if she could do the same thing with the viola music. His response: “Why not?”
“Because at that point he trusted my instinct,” she said. “We had many times put together sets of his solo viola pieces to do in various orders.” This is an exercise Kashkashian still does with her students, since the ordering of a performance of “Signs, Games, and Messages” is left to the performer. “We lay them out on the floor, and I say, ‘What goes with what? What’s a good dramatic build?’ ”
For Kashkashian herself, the ordering depends on the concert environment. “So if I’m playing these pieces in a retirement community, I am going to try to alternate energy pieces and dramatic pieces and more meditative pieces, so that the line of attention is calmer, shorter.” In another context — a concert filled with students and chamber-music enthusiasts — she tries “to follow something like the Fibonacci curve, the golden mean, so that the climax comes two-thirds or so of the way through. So you try to imitate that combination of rhythm and drama and space.”
Of course, the presence of the Bach changes the reckoning. For this program, Kashkashian plays each suite in order, using one or two of the Kurtag pieces — which range from playful to frenzied to painfully somber — to reflect or comment on each suite movement. In addition to putting the two composers in dialogue, this structure also places the Sarabande, the slow movement of each suite, at that magical golden-mean point. “It is what I call the tornado center of the piece,” she said. “It’s the silent center, but it’s the movement with the most content.”
Asked what the experience of playing the two composers together is like, Kashkashian answered that “they are so much a part of my life that it’s not unusual for me. Whether or not I’m performing Bach, I practice Bach every day. And it’s almost the same thing with Kurtag. There are a couple of the pieces that have become . . . just part of my life. It’s the geography in which I live as a musician.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidg