Philadelphia Orchestra plays Ligeti (2nd review)

Is Ligeti the Orchestra's savior?

Hannigan (left) and Rattle channel Ligeti: Both a parody and a celebration.
Hannigan (left) and Rattle channel Ligeti: Both a parody and a celebration.

Dear Allison Vulgamore and your crack staff of planners and publicists:

I think I speak for all music-loving Philadelphians when I say: Thank you for your tireless efforts to save our beloved orchestra. The work is far from done, but perhaps the tide has turned, and all of you deserve our praise and gratitude.

I would, however, like to offer three words of advice, based on the experience I had at a recent concert: Play more Ligeti.

Some historical background is in order. The Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) began his artistic life under the heavy boot of Stalinist cultural dictates, having barely survived the Nazis. In 1956, after the heartbreaking suppression of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks, Ligeti and his wife walked across the Hungarian-Austrian border to begin a new life.

Almost immediately he encountered the young lions of the Western new music scene, including Boulez and Stockhausen. For the still youthful Ligeti, the experience was akin to a little boy let loose in a candy shop.

Composing on the margins

Perhaps because of his association with such forbidding music makers (this was the public perception; whether or not it's defensible is another story), Ligeti remained on the margins of the music world, with the exception of his seminal vocal work, Lux Aeterna, which was included in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That music, like much of what Ligeti was writing, was actually vitally different from what the strict serialists were creating. Ligeti, while never pandering, was producing art of tremendous emotional and dramatic impact. In effect he was predicting the future of music.

By the time he died in 2006, Ligeti's style had, in his words, undergone a 180-degree turn toward an even more accessible manner. This final period produced his concertos for violin and piano, as well as the opera Le Grand Macabre, from which the concert piece Mysteries of the Macabre is excerpted.

Hannigan's sizzle

This delightful work, which both parodies and celebrates musical theater, was brilliantly performed by the sizzling (both vocally and visually) soprano Barbara Hannigan as well as the good sports in the Orchestra, under the buoyant leadership of Simon Rattle. When was the last time you heard a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that included the crumpling of newspaper as a part of the score? Not to mention the audience laughing out loud throughout the performance?

The balance of the Orchestra's program seemed like an odd mix but ultimately resulted in a richly satisfying evening. The concert opened with a luminous rendition of Anton Webern's early masterpiece, Passacaglia, which the Orchestra rendered as a great, flowing curtain of beautifully woven and colorful threads of sound.

Webern's Second Viennese School partner, Alban Berg, pushes the harmonic envelope even further in his opera Wozzeck. The Three Fragments offer a concise sense of the dramatic range and power of this 1922 work. Hannigan and Rattle displayed the same focus and expressiveness that they achieved in the Ligeti, absent the levity.

Beethoven's connection

And where does Beethoven fit into this mix? The lush and gentle rhythms of the Pastorale Symphony would seem to make this work the odd man out in this lineup, yet all four composers on the program shared a critical esthetic, albeit an almost simplistically obvious one: to craft music of beauty and emotional impact for the enjoyment of others.

That goal applies to new music just as it does to Beethoven. The audience's happily boisterous reaction to all of the music vindicated this axiom.

Orchestra planners would do well to remember it. Their very future could depend on it.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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