A few years ago, I was at Walt Disney Concert Hall to see James Conlon conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert of works by Prokofiev. Sitting right in front of me were two gentleman, one older and the other younger, speaking a European language I did not recognize. Whatever they were saying, they were deeply engaged in what seemed to be music-related conversation before and after each work and during intermission, even occasionally whispering and gesturing towards the stage as the music played. The older gentleman was particularly fond of Principal Oboe Ariana Ghez’s playing, applauding extra vigorously when she took her solo bow.
The younger gentleman turned out to be Gregory Vajda, Resident Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, in town to replace an indisposed Lionel Bringuier to conduct one of the orchestra’s Green Umbrella programs which featured the work of prominent Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös. The older gentleman turned out to be the composer himself.
Before the end of the concert, I introduced myself to Mr. Vajda. In turn, he introduced me to Mr. Eötvös. Though the composer didn’t say anything in English to me, he smiled and shook my hand. I wished them both well in their upcoming gig . . . and missed their concert two nights later despite the best of intentions. I was always bummed out that I didn’t get a chance to hear any of the famous composer’s music despite having met him in person.
Fortunately, I had the chance to finally make up for it last Saturday when Mr. Eötvös returned to Southern California to participate in the latest program by “Jacaranda, music at the edge” featuring two of his works, including the U.S. Premiere of Schiller: energische Schönheit written in 2010 and co-commissioned by Jacaranda. Also on the program were three works by his compatriot, György Ligeti.
I was far from the only one drawn to this concert. Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church was packed, with extra seats shoved wherever the room could be found. Attendance was so high that they ran out of programs. It was an enthusiastic crowd, and all were treated to some excellent performances of stimulating music.
Some concerts of contemporary music can feel cold and aloof, like so much esoteric academic discourse being purposely aimed over your head. Jacaranda’s lively program of the two Hungarian masters was the opposite — emotionally direct even when at its most melodically and harmonically abstract. This was music serving as hardcore workout for your brain: rigorous; requiring a serious investment in time, energy, and concentration; sometimes unpleasant in the moment, but ultimately, a positive and rewarding experience that makes you feel invigorated when it’s all said and done.
The best example of this was with the U.S. Premiere of Schiller: energische Schönheit with the composer himself conducting. Written for a moderately-sized ensemble (eight vocal soloists, eight wind instruments, two percussionists, and amplified accordion) with texts derived from a series of letters written by Friedrich Schiller in 1794, Mr. Eötvös creates a rich soundscape that grows and swirls over the course of its three parts. Textures were dense and laden with unusual timbres, and singers often employed what sounded like “sprichstimme,” the German sing-songy style of speech. The combined effect was captivating.
Eighteenth century historical figures were also the inspiration for the second Eötvös composition on the program: Korrespondenz, scenes for String Quartet, is a fictional setting of three scenes between Leopold Mozart and his son, Wolfgang. The intrepid Calder Quartet played the dual roles, with viola and first violin paired as the famous composer, while cello and second violin acted as the domineering father. Though the context of the three scenes is described in the printed program, the actual conversations — the lyrics, if you will, to the music being played — are not revealed to the listeners. No matter; all kinds of angst, head-butting, and despair come through loud and clear thanks to Mr. Eötvös’s composition, bracing one moment, grand the next. Physical variations on how the musicians played their instruments added to the visual drama (in addition to being played under the chins, the violas and violins were sometimes bowed vertically like little cellos, other times they were strummed like guitars). No matter what they were asked to do, the Calder Quartet pulled it off brilliantly.
Selecting Ligeti as the other composer in the program was certainly no casual decision, and the printed program made a point of describing Mr. Eötvös specifically as “Ligeti’s Heir.” The inclusion of the Ligeti Piano Concerto made the connection easy to recognize. The work begins with minimalist-like repetition before dancing and growling over the course of five complex movements. Gloria Cheng, pianist extraordinaire and new music stalwart, was the soloist. The unflappable ensemble of Jacaranda musicians conducted by Scott Dunn played with clarity and precision, even when Ligeti’s music was at its most thorny and opaque. Overall, I found it to be a work that is impressive in its structure and sonic effects, but without ever really grabbing a hold of me (which, in the spirit of full-disclosure, is how I respond to most Ligeti).
The two other Ligeti works were more tonal and therefore easier to readily embrace, though both works still had an edgy restlessness that pointed to the direction the composer would soon go. The Six Bagatelles for wind quintet were given a thoroughly spritely rendition by Heather Clark (flute), Leslie Reed (oboe), Stuart Clark (clarinet), Damian Montano (bassoon), and Steve Becknell (horn). Eric Byers, cellist for the Calders, gave a brooding, virtuoso performance of the Sonata for Solo Cello.
This weekend, Mr. Eötvös concludes his Southern California residency as Midori, Pablo-Heras Casado, and the LA Phil perform the world premiere of his new violin concerto, DoReMi. Joining it on the program are Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Kodály’s Háry János suite — the next invitation to compare Mr. Eötvös to influential 20th Century Hungarian composers. I’ll be there on Sunday.
“Jacaranda, music at the edge:” January 12, 2013; First Presbyterian/Santa Monica
Eötvös: Korrespondenz, scenes for String Quartet
- Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobsen and Andrew Bullbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello)
Ligeti: Piano Concerto
- Gloria Cheng, piano
- Scott Dunn, conductor
- Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra (Heather Clark, flute; Leslie Reed, oboe; Stuart Clark, clarinet; Anthony Parnther, bassoon; Dylan Hart, horn; Rob Schaer trumpet; Steve Suminski, tenor trombone; M.B. Gordy, Chester Englander, Sidney Hopson, percussion; Alyssa Park, concertmaster; Searmi Park, Ben Jacobson, Rafael Rishik, Violin 1; Andrew Bullbrook — principal, Nina Evtuhov, Radu Pieptea, Susan Rishik, Violin 2; Alma Fenandez — principal, Victoria Miskolczy, Jonathan Moerschel, Viola; Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick — principal, Elizabeth Wright, David Mergen; Nico Abondolo — principal, David Parmeter, bass)
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles for wind quintet
- Heather Clark (flute), Leslie Reed (oboe), Stuart Clark (clarinet), Damian Montano (bassoon), and Steve Becknell (horn)
Ligeti: Sonata for Solo Cello
- Eric Byers, cello
Eötvös: Schiller: energische Schönheit (U.S. Premiere, Co-commission made possible by David & Margaret Barry)
- Peter Eötvös, conductor
- Suzanne Walters, Risa Larson, soprano; Buffy Baggott, alto; Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano; Todd Strange, Robert MacNeil, tenor; Museop Kim, baritone; Vincent Robles, bass; Heather Clark, flute; Leslie Reed, oboe; Stuart Clark, clarinet; Rob Schaer, Daniel Rosenboom, trumpet; Anthony Parnther, bassoon; Dylan Hart, horn; Steve Suminski, bass trombone; John Torcello, accordion; M.B. Gordy, metal percussion; Sidney Hopson, wood percussion
- Peter Eötvös: Kai Bienert and Musikfest Berlin 2010
- Calder Quartet: Autumn de Wilde
- Gloria Cheng: Lefterisphoto.com