Liz Martin, Deseret Morning News
Corbin Johnston is Nova Chamber Series artistic director.

The program of today's NOVA Chamber Music Series concert contains one known quantity along with two unknowns.

Robert Schumann's enchanting "Marchenerzahlungen" ("Fairy Tales"), for clarinet, viola and piano, is the one work on the concert that should be familiar to everyone. "People know it, and it ties everything together on the program," said Corbin Johnston, NOVA artistic director.

But with Gyorgy Kurtag and Bela Bartok also on the program, the connection between Schumann's delightfully innocuous piece and two Hungarian masters of the 20th century might seem a stretch. Yet the two are deeply indebted to Schumann for his rich romantic language, at least in the works that will be played today.

Kurtag's "Hommage a Robert Schumann," op. 15d, has an obvious relationship with the German composer. It's scored for the same instruments as "Marchenerzahlungen," and it's also related to the piece thematically, Johnston said. "It certainly connects to Schumann's sound world."

The "Hommage" is in several short movements. "He writes in miniature form," Johnston said, except for the last movement, which is longer than the first five combined. "The last movement is reminiscent of (Gustav Mahler's) 'Das Lied von der Erde,' and it's where you really feel the connection with Schumann," he said.

Even so, one can still sense Kurtag's discernible style in the piece, despite it's strong link to Schumann. "Kurtag has a distinctive voice, and it's unmistakable in this piece," Johnston said.

Bartok, too, has a clearly defined musical language. And anyone with even a peripheral knowledge of his music can hear it. Deeply rooted in the tunes and rhythms of the folk music of his native Hungary and the Balkans, Bartok developed a distinct musical personality that is not easily imitated.

Yet there are also strong influences that helped shape the young Bartok's music, and which disappeared once he came under the spell of folk music.

Bartok's Piano Quintet is an early work, written in 1904 when the composer was 23. "This is a Bartok unlike the one people know," Johnston said. It shows how deeply he was influenced by German romanticism — and even French impressionism. "In this piece he is indebted to Brahms, Dvorak, Richard Strauss and even Debussy. And there is only a glimmer of the Bartok we do know."

As his musical language changed, Bartok came to immensely dislike his youthful quintet, although as a pianist he did play it a few times.

There is a story that after Bartok performed it at a concert many years after it was written and long after his style had changed, someone from the audience came up to him and told him he liked the quintet better than the music he was currently writing. Always sensitive to how his works were received by critics and the public, that comment upset him tremendously.

Johnston is looking forward to this concert. "I'm incredibly excited about this program. It's one that I feel that I personally attended to.

"I think (today's) concert continues the NOVA mantra of bringing works that people will be surprised to hear. I want to keep doing that and have it be a strong element in the series."

Performing today will be Utah Symphony musicians Lee Livengood, clarinet; Yuki MacQueen and Stephanie Cathcart, violin; Brant Bayless, viola; Kevin Shumway, cello; and Jason Hardink, piano.

If you go ...

What: NOVA Chamber Music Series

Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts Auditorium, 410 Campus Center Drive

When: Today, 3 p.m.

How much: $15 general admission, $12 senior citizens, $5 students

Phone: 463-5223