Deadly Diversions

Photo by Larry Merkle


Twenty-six years have gone by since György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre tickled (exasperated, irritated — you name it) its first audiences. Thirty-five productions have been mounted in European houses since then, including a substantial revision of the original score that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted in Salzburg in 1997 with a staging by Peter Sellars that infuriated the composer. Previous stagings had assumed all kinds of freedoms with the opera’s scenario; one production in Paris brought in cameo appearances by the Marx Brothers and Spider-Man, with Ligeti’s acquiescence. Sellars’ notion, of changing the setting to a post-H-bomb world, was apparently taken by the composer as one step too far.

The San Francisco Opera production, the first in America, which closed its six-performance run earlier this week, was wisely timed to open on Halloween, and, I am told, that city responded in mood and attire proper to the occasion. I saw the fourth performance; it was still drawing near-capacity, enthusiastic crowds. The production, brought over from the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, was a royal mess to match the music. Anti-drama, anti-opera, anti–anything that might add up to a definable artistic experience — it is the very anti-definability of the work that captivates the observer. Its resolute refusal to follow rules lies at the center of its virtue.

That, of course, is the essential Ligeti. By the early 1970s he had already declared his libertarian principles with music that dined freely at international troughs, wordplay that demanded high artistic status for gibberish. These crystallized in the early Macabre; the later revision was the work of a man who in the intervening years had dared to mingle a quartet of ocarinas into the high-artsy symphony orchestra. Drawing upon the Dada-infused text of Michael de Ghelderode, one of many of its time that brings a personification of Death onto a stage and makes him (or her) do a ghastly dance — didn’t we have some of the same here, in Viktor Ullman’s prison-camp masterwork, The Emperor of Atlantis? — he seemed to revel in his very violations of musical sense.

The richer our perspective on Ligeti and his legacy — at 81, he is wheelchair-ridden and unwell — the greater our respect for the inner strengths that legacy represents. Those lucky enough to have heard him speak come away amazed at the breadth of his musical grasp — his view of world music and where everything in that world interacts, and the use to which he has put that knowledge in his music. Le Grand Macabre in San Francisco, a ragtag performance capably conducted by Alexander Rumpf in a quick fill-in for the ailing Michael Boder, and handsomely anchored by the massive abilities of Willard White as Nekrotzar ("tzar of death"), represents for Ligeti a grand sport. To measure his stature more clearly I turn to the Piano Etudes that have occupied his recent years and seem to me some of the strongest music of our time — a message of overwhelming grace and power.


Thomas Quasthoff’s time with us began with the aching tragedy of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and ended five nights later with the redeeming wisdom of Mozart’s Sarastro. Between these two concerts — the one with the Philharmonic, the other with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra — there had been a jazz event at REDCAT, which I had been obliged to miss because of Ligeti up north. Friends who attended that concert — Quasthoff and a pianist in a wide range of pop, including scat, improv and major outpourings of contemporary wisdom — tell me that all my previous high regard for this exceptional singer is only a small part of the whole.

Dealing with Quasthoff is, for any serious critic, a difficult matter — not because of his physical affliction (his foreshortened body due to his mother’s having taken thalidomide during pregnancy) but in spite of it. Music’s headlines resonate with the money names — Bocelli today, Helfgott yesterday — but Quasthoff is, emphatically, not of that world. In his chosen repertory he is one of the two or three finest singers alive today, and he is, furthermore, in his absolute vocal prime. From his opening phrase in the Mahler cycle, there was a rich darkness that seemed to envelop the essence of the Rückert poetry, the momentary shafts of sunlight, the desperate resignation at the end. Around this richly colored thread of tone, guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach wove a supporting fabric of equal elegance. At the end, deep winds and horns made their long final chord into a resting place for the singer’s last words; for nearly a minute afterward, nobody dared break the silence: a magical moment. (In his L.A. Times review, my colleague Mark Swed felt that moment evoked John Cage’s 4’33" of silence; I disagree. To me, Cage’s silence is a full breath, the universe around us and the performer. That moment in the Mahler found me drained. Oh well.)

I remember another silence like that. It occurred in January 1982, at the end of the Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. The conductor was a very young Brit named Simon Rattle, 27, one of those wet-behind-the-ears boy geniuses that Ernest Fleischmann was good at discovering. At the serene F-sharp-major chord at the end of the symphony, when we were already tied up in knots anyhow, Rattle held his baton in the air and kept it there for at least 30 seconds, maybe 45. Nobody stirred.

Last weekend at Disney I kept hoping for history to repeat itself on that same score, but in vain. Daniel Harding is already two years older than Rattle was at the time, and his career has advanced well past the boy-genius stage; he delivered a creditable performance of that tortuous work, and did earn several seconds of silence at the end. Those seconds, plus the golden blasts of sound that had come before, did the work fair justice. Still . . .


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