The mercurial, unique, and otherworldly music of György Ligeti–and members of Cascadia Composers who have been influenced by him–received a captivating and fun concert Sunday evening (June 4) at the Old Madeleine Church. Sponsored by Cascadia Composers, the two-hour extravaganza wonderfully conveyed the spirit of the Hungarian composer with a variety of pieces for piano, wind quintet, violin, fixed media, and voice. The performance even included a one-time only, spontaneous malfunction of a valve on a French horn – an absurd situation that would probably have tickled Ligeti’s fancy.
Among the many pieces that enchanted the audience, two of Ligeti’s drew immediate and emphatic standing ovations: L’escalier du diable (Devil’s Staircase) and Mysteries of the Macabre.
Played by Myrna Setiawan, Devil’s Staircase (Etudes for Piano No. 13) unfurled a diabolical series of maddeningly complex, ascending lines that would rebuild and re-ascend – periodically interrupted by tender moments. Setiawan’s impeccable and incisive technique made it seem as if the piece would spin out of control. She was equally convincing in her performance of Fanfares (Etudes for Piano No. 4) in which constant patterns metaphorically ran uphill, broken up now and then by a scattershot of notes.
Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre received a supreme performance by soprano Madeline Ross and pianist Rebecca Stager. They superbly created the chaotic atmosphere of paranoia and nonsense of authoritarian agents in response to a world-ending apocalypse. Simultaneously Intense, dramatic, and humorous, Stager played and hissed from the keyboard in an exchange with Ross hit all sorts of impossible notes – including a E-flat above high C – while spouting fragments of inane verbiage.
In the first half of the concert, Ross and Stager went a totally opposite direction with an elegant recital of Der Sommer, Ligeti’s mellow and atmospheric setting of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. That marvelously showed the fantastic range of these two artists.
The Arcturus Quintet (flutist Zachariah Galatis, oboist Karen Wagner, hornist Joseph Berger, bassoonist Steve Vacchi, and clarinetist James Shields) got into groove with Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles starting with the bubbly first movement, the plaintive and meandering second, but somewhere along the way Berger broke a string on the valve of his horn. Everyone knows of violin strings that can snap, but a horn? In talking with audience members, most of us were not even aware that horns used strings. So here is a repair video to show you what Berger had to do.
Returning after intermission with fully functioning horn, Berger and his colleagues restarted the third movement and continued with verve through the fourth, fifth, and sixth movements. The last one featured a humorous part for the bassoon, layered with pulsating phrases, which wrapped up the piece in an odd way that only Ligeti could dream up.
Pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf kicked off the concert with Ligeti’s Musica ricercata VII, hypnotizing listeners with its repetitive pattern in the left hand and delicate melodic lines in the right. Next, Schwarzkopf carefully crafted Musica ricercata ii, etching the extreme registers of the keyboard to create a haunting effect.
Interspersed throughout the program were Ligeti-inspired numbers by members of Cascadia Composers. Michael Johanson’s we could rise up rooted, like trees, played with verve by the Arcturus Quintet, was laced with buzzy and fuzzy notes due to “multiphonics” in which chords were created by monophonic instruments. Sometimes the tones would slide around and blurt defiantly in a surreal, Ligeti-worthy way.
Schwarzkopf created a myriad of notes in Daria Baiocchi’s Alos that emanated from the keyboard like a school of fish racing around in the water. It all became marvelously smothered in a hazy cloud of sound at the end.
Gary Noland’s A Fleeting Kaleidoscopic Phantasmagory on the Ostinato Figure from Ligeti’s Fanfares Etude (No. 4) unleashed a humorous slingshot of sounds that ricocheted all over the place. Using fixed media, the random and run amok nature of the piece generated mischievous smiles from the concertgoers.
The Arcturus Quintet gamely accented the whimsical side of Ligeti with its performance of Go Ask Alice by Antonio Celaya. The musicians played and proclaimed verses of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky with a few extra words about eggs thrown in – perhaps a nod to the Marx Brothers – but the words were difficult to hear and that lessened the effect of the piece.
John G. Bilotta’s Soledad for flute (Galatis) and violin (Emily Cole) turned things inward with a reflective and almost desolate melancholy that was calming and appealing. Pianist Colleen Adent generated fanciful imagery of a bird of prey in Paul Safar’s Red-Tailed Hawk. The low bass notes contrasted extremely well with the high-flying ostinato.
One of the most abstract pieces on the program was Alex Shapira’s Fibo-Nata, which was performed by pianist Ben Gimm. It referred to a mathematical concept called the Fibonacci sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding ones. That aptly reflected the precision that was part of Ligeti’s genius.
Cascadia Composers did Ligeti proud with an outstanding celebration of the centennial of his birth, giving proof that his music is not frozen in time but is still refreshing and inspiring.
Postscript: I talked to Berger over the phone about the string incident, and he said that it is rare but not entirely uncommon that a string can break. He had a screwdriver and extra string in his horn case; so he took care of the situation. Crisis averted!