Rising In The East

Eastern European Music And Dance Take Over Two Tucson Stages, With Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás, And The UA Balalaika Ensemble.

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

EVER WONDER WHOSE voice it is that keeps Kristin Scott Thomas naked in bed during a baking Cairo afternoon in The English Patient? Ralph Fiennes' Hungarian Count of many tongues but few words plays the haunting, traditional "Szerelem, Szerelem" on a gramophone, and Katharine just doesn't rush back to her husband.

Music In fact, the "haunting" comes from Hungarian Márta Sebestyén, and the "traditional" has been revived by the likes of her and the members of Muzsikás, with whom she will appear in Tucson on August 2.

Mathematicians, geophysicists, ethnographers by day, these Budapest musicians revive Hungarian folk music by night. In the seventies, following the tradition of composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, urban musicians and dancers trekked to rural villages to collect original folk material. Sebestyén and the members of Muzsikás went to Transylvania, the remote province ceded to Romania after World War I, and to other Hungarian-speaking regions, for the bulk of their repertoire.

Muzsikás first recorded in the late seventies as representative of the "folk dance-house" movement. By the early eighties, they'd found their voice in ethnic authenticity, and were performing reconstructed village forms. Meanwhile, Sebestyén, who'd sung with the group previously, gained international attention as a soloist. They got together and put out three albums in the late eighties.

In loose collaboration since, Sebestyén and Muzsikás brought out Maramaros--The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania in 1993, and Morning Star in 1997, and are currently working on an album of the work of Bartók. They've been featured in international film; and Sebestyén has recorded with French Deep Forest, British Towering Inferno, and pop-music luminary Peter Gabriel.

Essentially a string and vocal group with dancers, Muzsikás reflects not just the aesthetic but also the cultural functions of musicians in village life. The title cut from Morning Star is a song from a Hungarian-speaking village in Romania. To stave off the moment of departure for the Romanian army, the village's 18-year-old conscripts, their families and lovers, keep a song and dance (and booze?) vigil the night before--in anticipation of that morning star. Another cut is the abbreviated version of traditional days-long wedding sets: "Fuzesi Lakodalmas" opens with a violin melody for male dancers, modulates into a wedding song by Sebestyén, the latter of which modulates into a csujogartas (a female chorus accompanied by rhythmic clapping) and finishes with a quick couple's dance.

Muzsikás has performed with goatskin bagpipes, the hammered-dulcimer-like cymbalom, and regional string inventions the kontra and the hit-gardon. The kontra, popular in Transylvania, is a violin-shaped, three-stringed instrument with a flat bridge for uniform chords and triads. The cello-sized hit-gardon, from the East Carpathians, is a percussion instrument whose four gut strings are struck with a wooden stick or slapped on the fingerboard--definitely not regulation Suzuki bow position.

Muzsikás' sound and repertoire vary from harmonies and melodies with unmistakable Irish echoes, recreated Sephardic tunes of the Holocaust-razed Jewish Transylvanian population, wedding and harvest melodies of Transylvania, to Bartók-collected Romanian folk songs reminiscent of Northern India. And they're all flavored by the pulse-changing tempo of gypsy violin.

One end of the Muzsikás sound has a raw, insistent, droning quality--darkened and sensualized by Sebestyén's lower vocal register. The other end--flute and bells supporting Sebestyén's lyrical upper range--has an ethereal Eastern texture.

The group for the Tucson show consists of Sebestyén, Muzsikás instrumentalists on fiddles, bass, viola, mandolin, zither, lute; and lead dancers from the Kodály Ensemble. Audiences from their last Tucson show will remember violin virtuosity and spiraling, fluctuating rhythms.

TRIANGULAR AND BOWL-back instruments plus high-kicking, quick-steps characterize the other ethnic revival group performing this weekend--the UA Balalaika Ensemble.

Russian aristocrat and Petersburg Count Vasili Vasilevich Andreev also reinvigorated Russian folk music in his spare time...a hundred or so years ago. Moved by a sort of Slavic nationalism, Andreev set out to legitimize the repertoire and instrument of choice of rural Russia, the balalaika. He hired a couple of violin makers and a carpenter, and managed to spawn a complete family of multiple-octave, fretted balalaikas--piccolo to contra-bass--from a crude, one-position, gut-strung triangular box.

The UA Balalaika Ensemble, part of the UA Balalaika Orchestra, combines the balalaika with the round-bodied domra. Tremoloed and picked rather than bowed, and supported by the zither-like gusli and the accordion, the group's sound is more feathered and silvery than cut or edged.

The orchestra, founded in 1980 and directed by Mia Bulgarin Gay, is further bolstered by Richard Holden's Kalinka Russian Dance Ensemble. The groups' annual January concert is a consistently a sold-out affair. This ensemble, with lead dancers from the Kalinka group, can be expected to play a lively "K" show, featuring Russian favorites Karobushka, Katyusha and Kalinka.

...Fiennes or no Fiennes, it'll keep you out of bed and clapping through a warm Tucson evening.

Muzsikás, with Márta Sebestyén, performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 2, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. All seats are reserved. Tickets are $13 and $15 ($1 discount for In Concert! members), available in advance at Hear's Music, Antigone Books. Call 327-4809 ($1 per ticket phone-order fee) for reservations and information.

The UA Balalaika Ensemble performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 1, in the courtyard at Plaza Palomino, corner of Ft. Lowell and Swan roads. Advance tickets are $10 (with a $1 discount for KXCI members), available at Hear's Music, Piney Hollow or Suite 219 in Plaza Palomino. They'll cost $12 at the door. TW

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