NWS All Hungarian Night Unsettling in a Good Way

Written By ArtBurst Team
October 25, 2015 at 6:40 PM

The main event was supposed to be the pairing of the New World Symphony with soloists from the Ensemble Modern — one of the most exciting cutting-edge musical groups anywhere — conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. The program, spanning half a century’s worth of Mitteleuropa musical chutzpah, was all-Hungarian: Bela Bartok, György Ligeti, and György Kurtag. Still, there were major surprises at the Jan. 18 concert in the New World Center. Illness forced the Ensemble Modern’s cello soloist to cancel at the last minute. The brilliant Matt Haimovitz, who happened to be in town mentoring the NWS Fellows, stepped in and gave a bravura performance alongside the announced pianist Hermann Kretzschmar in Kurtag’s 1990 Double Concerto for Piano, Cello, and two Chamber Ensembles, Op. 27, No. 2. But the biggest news was simply the reminder that Kurtag, Ligeti, and Bartok are always surprising, and the evening’s biggest triumph was how fresh all the sounds seemed. Every piece called for virtuosity in the extreme, and not just from the soloists. It was a musical feast in South Beach. Kurtag’s music took up the first half, starting with his short and intense 1988 …quasi una fantasia… for Piano and Groups of Instruments Op. 27, No. 1 followed by the landmark 1990 Double Concerto. Kretzschmar’s grand piano was of course placed center stage, but the other musicians were everywhere in the hall, and at one point near the end of the concerto the steady drumbeat seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, an echo of the listener’s heartbeat. The very quiet beginning of …quasi una fantasia… was tested by the noisy audience, but soon a sensual mood settled on the whole affair, frankly unsettling in every way. Almost shy single notes from the piano, strange noises from the back of the house and what sounded like someone walking on broken glass, a weird little row of harmonicas breathing out hints of melody, a downright shocking brass explosion and a feeling of expectation made this 10-minute piece at once too brief and unforgettable. The Double Concerto brought together Kretzschmar, Haimovitz, and the orchestra, all still in clumps of sounds from everywhere in the auditorium. The New World Center’s acoustics, terrific but also at times a bit homogenizing, made a case for the hall’s intimate size as well as for the clarity, the transparency that can be achieved here. Maestro de Leeuw’s conducting, precise down to making sure nobody clapped until after a long silence at the end, was masterful. The steady shimmer of the second movement briefly suggested Wagnerian forest sounds, deconstructed so that every little noise became a world onto itself. It was a lonely world, a disturbing, ravishing musical vision. Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra followed after intermission, taking listeners into yet more uncharted territory. Dietmar Wiesner’s flute and Christian Hommel’s oboe were radically different, as intended. And the best compliment to the NWS Fellows is that they matched the Ensemble Modern’s soloists breath by baited breath. The uncertainty and terror that drenches Ligeti’s music bears witness to the cruelty of his times — the composer himself saw Hungary overtaken by Nazis and then Stalinists, and his life in 1956 became that of a permanent exile. Sounds as unexpected as political disasters pileup slowly as intimations of dread, counterpoints of melancholy, music at the service of raw human emotions. It was a breathtaking performance. Closing the concert with Bartok’s 1924 Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, might sound like a safe way to end a challenging evening. But no. A lot could be said about what happened to the arts in Europe following World War I, the biggest paradox being how an unprecedented tragedy brought forth such a bounty to the Zeitgeist. Bartok is still shocking, and in this case it was one beautiful shock. PHOTO: Matt Haimovitz by Stephanie Mackinnon

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