The Alexander String Quartet — who have been appearing regularly at the Mondavi Center since the venue was dedicated in October 2002 — will launch their series of concerts for the new season on Sunday, Oct. 6, with concerts at 2 and 7 p.m.
This year’s series will focus on the string quartets of two Hungarian composers who made their mark early in the 20th century — Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály — whose lives followed somewhat similar paths. Bartók was born in 1881, Kodály in 1882. Kodály studied violin, Bartók piano. They both became students at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where they met and became friends. In 1908, they traveled in the Hungarian countryside together, collecting old folk melodies. And they both began composing, working elements of Magyar peasant tunes into the music they wrote.
In 1909, these two colleagues and friends even organized a concert together, at which they premiered their respective First String Quartets. And Sunday’s concerts at Mondavi by the Alexander String Quartet will recreate that 1909 concert program, paralleling the premiere of the two pieces a little more than 100 years ago.
The association between Bartók and Kodály continued — they also premiered their respective Second String Quartets together at a concert in 1918. But life took the two men in different directions after that.
Kodály remained in Budapest (even during World War II), and became known primarily as a composer of music for orchestras (“Dances of Galanta,” “Peacock Variations” and the suite from his opera “Háry János”). Bartók left Hungary during WWII and emigrated to the United States, settling in New York. But he was not entirely comfortable living in America, and fell ill in 1940 with what was ultimately diagnosed as leukemia.
Bartók died in 1945, but before his death, he completed several works for which he became well-known, including his Concerto for Orchestra, his Piano Concerto No. 3 and his Sixth String Quartet. Many listeners now regard Bartók’s six string quartets as his greatest achievement, they are often regarded as the most influential set of string quartets written after Beethoven’s lifetime.
Kodály, for his part, continued to teach and compose, and champion the music of his friend Bartók until his death in 1967, at age 84.
The Alexander String Quartet performed the cycle of the six Bartók quarters and the two Kodály Quartets at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in 2011, and they reprised the Bartók/Kodály cycle at Baruch College in New York in 2012. Then the Alexanders went into the studio and recorded the cycle for their Foghorn label; the official release date of the three-CD box set is Oct. 8.
The Alexanders are launching their Bartók/Kodály series at Mondavi on Oct. 6 in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre. The 2 p.m. performance will feature a talk by music historian and composer Robert Greenberg, and the 7 p.m. performance will include a “talk-back” session between the performers and the audience.
The afternoon concert is technically sold out, but a few turned-back tickets always materialize at the box office during the hour before the concert. Tickets are $54 general, $24.50 for UC Davis students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.
The other concerts in the Alexander String Quartet’s Bartók/Kodály series at Mondavi will be on Jan. 5, Feb. 23 and March 16. Mondavi Center regulars may recall that in past seasons, the Alexander String Quartet has done series covering the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (a three-year cycle) and Ludwig van Beethoven (a three-year-cycle), as well as seasons focusing on Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvorák and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.