So far, the Philharmonic's extraordinary celebration of Gyorgy Ligeti's music has concentrated on his work from the 1960s – the decade of assassinations, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missiles and the walk on the moon. For Ligeti it was also the decade of hope, hopes dashed and betrayal for his native Hungary, and the time of his first worldwide fame – bestowed with neither his knowledge nor his consent when Stanley Kubrick appropriated three of his works as part of the score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later works are still to come in this “Around Ligeti” festival: the whimsical, affectionate Horn Trio and the death-defying Piano Etudes at Gindi Auditorium on May 18, and the spellbinding Piano Concerto in the season's final subscription weekend, May 22-24.
Circumstance is important in evaluat-ing Ligeti's music – as it might not be in the case of, let's say, Harrison Birtwistle or Elliott Carter. He lets us know early on the forces that shaped his world-views: personal (the death of father and brother in Nazi camps) as well as political. The Requiem of 1963-65, whose performance here under Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Master Chorale trained by Grant Gershon to sing far above its norm, must be reckoned one of the luminous events in local cultural history. The piece mingles its accents of sorrow with moments of sardonic, grotesque cackle right out of Hieronymus Bosch; better yet, it lets us hear these accents as if from Ligeti himself – the captivating countenance (lines of sorrow etched over an endearing smile) in the photographs clearly belongs to the composer whose hand shaped this music.
This is elusive music; it demands and handsomely rewards superhuman performers and listeners of comparable strength. (The exit doors saw much action during the Requiem performance; call it the “Ligeti Split.”) The Requiem seems to transcend the realm of sound and turn into something as much sight as well. It also happens in the shorter orchestral pieces, Atmospheres and Lontano: mist-shrouded, mysterious mountainscapes that conjure visions of – who? Well, Mark Rothko for one. The “Kyrie” from the Requiem (which Kubrick used to splendid effect at the end of 2001's big light show and the approach to Jupiter) spins a dark, shimmering web out of tiny fragments of choral tone jammed together; the final “Lacrimosa” dispels the clouds and ends in a burst of pure white light. (Think for a moment, perchance to dream, about what a collaboration between Ligeti and Robert Wilson might accomplish.) Between these comes the “Dies Irae” with its grinning, Boschian monsters, lit up in audible flames of lurid crimson and saffron from chorus and orchestra; you can shut your eyes if you wish, but the colors remain.
At the Philharmonic's previous Ligeti celebration, in February 1993 with the composer in attendance, Salonen had the admirable idea of surrounding his orchestral works with Debussy, thus extending the notion of audible color. This time there was Haydn: three symphonies (Nos. 43, 45 and 49) from the time when the composer (with the blessing of his employer, Prince Esterhazy, a role model for all patrons) felt free to experiment, to stray far from the norms of symphony construction and to invent and explore new worlds. Thus we had the amusing and clever slow decrescendo at the end of the “Farewell” Symphony, No. 45, in which the musicians leave the stage (or this time merely turned off their lamps) one by one, and the immensely sad “Passion” Symphony (No. 49), with its excruciating outcries from horns at the top of their range. Haydn between Ligeti became like wonderfully refreshing sorbet between courses at some illustrious and memorable banquet.
Last week's “Green Umbrella” – all Ligeti except for Mel Powell's haunting “Nocturne” for solo violin, played by Mark Baranov in memory of the composer – included one recent piece, Mysteries of the Macabre, a conflation of three bewitching and insane bits from the 1978 Le Grand Macabre, turned into a suite for soprano and ensemble in 1991, gloriously screamed by the phenomenal Sibylle Ehlert (who has also recorded the work with Salonen in Sony's ongoing Ligeti series). The two sets of Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures (1963/65) represent Ligeti's ardent participation in the ferment of the time, mingling traditional and off-the-wall musical thinking. “Burn the opera houses!” Pierre Boulez had once proclaimed; these prickly little non-operas light the fuses. (Two nights after hoary old Il Trovatore, the contrast, I am sure, was lost on nobody.)
The text is Ligeti's own gibberish concoction; the singers bounce their nonsensical phrases off each other with a confrontational passion worthy of romantic grand opera. The players, dashing around the stage to pull their musical semblances from a banged-upon ashcan and scraps of torn paper as well as a few more “normal” noisemakers, enhance the impression that, just beyond the veil of ostensible non-meaning, something of intense, imaginative significance is taking place. Once again no real boundary between visual and sound stimulus is anywhere discernible; the music appears to float within a vast, undefinable continuum, and we are invited to float along. Salonen led performances both vivid and suave; his vocalists included the splendid Phyllis Bryn-Julson, whose heroism in the cause of new music has been celebrated in this space more than once, and will surely be again.
These, you will not be surprised to learn, are hazardous times for the record industry, and nobody knows (or is willing to let on) how long Sony's Ligeti project will continue. The seven discs that have so far appeared are superb. They include the Macabre music and Aventures under Salonen, with the same vocal forces that sang them here; the Etudes in astonishing performances by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who will play them at Gindi); and a wonderful disc of Ligeti's “mechanical” music for player piano, barrel organ and – in a piece he calls, with thumb to nose, Poeme Symphonique – 100 metronomes, ticking away and each slowing down at its own rate. How can you not love the guy who could dream up something like that?