BMI Review of “Existentia” and Magyar Madness

JANUARY 26, 2015

Rock-solid But Not Maniacal

by 

Balint Karosi

Balint Karosi

Though the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s “Magyar Madness” certainly delivered on the first word by presenting four works of Hungarian or Hungarian-descended composers including two premieres at Jordan Hall on Friday, we’ll give BMOP a pass on “Madness,” as the alliterative sobriquet was oxymoronic considering the event’s rock-solidity.

Bálint Karosi’s Existentia—In Memory of Sándor Weöres, a world premiere of a three-movement work gave the composer’s reactions to three poems Weöres (1913-89) wrote on the progress of life, from “pre-existence” (i.e., in the womb), existence as the unfolding of a life, and “post-existence,” a kind of posthumous contemplation of what it all amounts to. While the first two movements are purely orchestral, the last featured mezzo Stephanie Kacoyanis singing Weöres’s text most affectingly and sonorously (note to concertgoers: the program got the singer’s ID wrong, a datum which we came by on the highest authority, as Kacoyanis’s parents were sitting next to us).

A young man with whose work we were unfamiliar, Karosi came to the US after study in his native Budapest and in Geneva, to pursue graduate programs at Oberlin and Yale. He may still be best known as a virtuoso organist who specializes in classical improvisation. His music is solidly grounded in current neo-tonal idioms, with influences from minimalism but certainly not wedded to them. In the pre-concert panel discussion that is a constant feature of BMOP programming, Karosi expressed some ambivalence about writing music about, rather than setting, texts, and the whole fraught history of program music. Of the three movements, he said, only the second really attempted to “depict” the underlying concept, in which his melodic line evolved and deepened in keeping with the progress of life. The dirty little secret of program music, though, is that no program will make bad music seem palatable, and good music stands on its own and needs no extramusical justification. Karosi needn’t have fretted; his work sounded very well—inchoate gathering of threads in the first movement, a little reminiscent of Haydn’s “chaos” in The Creation; a rhythmically perky underlayment in the second movement (herein of the minimalist ostinati of Adams et al.) somewhat undermined by dark spookiness in the lower strings; and an appropriately thoughtful finale fitted out with a Hungarian folk tune adumbrated in the second movement. Conductor Gil Rose kept all the forces well balanced and never let the forward momentum flag.

Karosi applied several layers of Hungarianness to this work, with orchestration that included the signature cembalo, the use of native musical materials and, finally, himself, dressed for the part in a brocaded black suit he informed us was called a “bocskay” suit, used a century ago as a student uniform and latterly as a kind of nationalistic dress wear in place of a tuxedo (you can see one, minus the protruding white collar and tab tie Karosi sported, here, and a picture of young Béla Bartók in a more subdued version here). For some reason, it is named for Prince István (Stephen) Bocskai (or Bocskay) of Transylvania, a 16th century noble who took the side of the Calvinists, thereby earning the enmity of both the Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

The cram-packed program closed its first half with György Ligeti’s 1992 Violin Concerto, with Gabriela Diaz as soloist. Diaz, the youngest of a remarkable family of string players and well known locally as a peripatetic chamber artist, is no stranger to this work, having performed it as an NEC student nearly 12 years ago (you can find the video here), and for the BMOP performance, as anticipated by the composer’s instructions, she provided her own cadenza, following in the footsteps of its first performer, Saschko Gawriloff, and others including John Zorn. Written originally in 1990 as a three-movement work, it grew to five in subsequent iterations. As befits a work from Ligeti’s late period, it’s a stylistic gallimaufry and displays Ligeti’s interest in non-standard tunings: some of the strings are tuned to just intonation, and the composer added instruments to the mix, such as ocarinas and high recorders, that permit microtonal inflections. Thus the soloist, tuned at standard pitch and playing in tempered tuning, contrasts with something like a concertino in “off” tuning to produce eerie sonic auras. The prelude first movement (hat tip to Max Bruch?) begins with gentle pulsations in harmonics against the scordatura strings, developing to something like a moto perpetuo before fading to black. The second movement is a lushly lyrical set of variations on a theme that Ligeti evidently liked a lot, from his early Musica Ricercara but reused in his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet and in his horn trio; it features the same motif that opens Shostakovich’s C minor prelude and fugue, op. 87 No. 20. To this movement Diaz brought a sultry cantilena to her solos and in duet with viola, before the raucous ocarinas and recorders interrupt. Ligeti conjures some remarkable and subtle timbres with his unconventional ensemble. The central but very brief intermezzo begins with a floating solo line with massed harmonics in accompaniment; only gradually does the underlying presto tempo become apparent. The fourth movement, a passacaglia, features a theme based on a descending bass line and a solo part that begins from near inaudibility, rising eventually to a loud, somewhat abrupt, ending. The finale pits a brusque soloist against an orchestral melody (then vice versa). The microtonal instruments often give off hints of the “village band” then suppressed by anguished squeals. A brief lyrical passage leads to the cadenza, which cycles through themes from earlier in the work (Diaz’s lingered, quite appropriately, on the lyric theme from the second movement before a headlong rush, with ample attention to harmonics, pizzicato and other bravura effects), and just a few orchestral notes to finish.

Diaz is a performer of enormous intelligence, sensitivity and technical panache, and she brought that all this to bear on this fiercely difficult concerto. For its part, the concerto, though undoubtedly a masterpiece, did not fully reciprocate, and for this we don’t fault Rose. Apart from the cadenza and the occasional solo line peeping through, much of the writing, as is often the case in modern music, kept the soloist on a short leash, participating in the fabric of the work but not clearly standing out from it, so that the visual evidence of the soloist’s input is not matched by the aural output. This despite Ligeti’s many obvious attempts to invoke the classical-romantic traditions of concerto writing, including the ad-lib cadenza (and the shortness of the orchestra’s conclusion after it). Go figure.

The second half of the program began with Bartók’s Falun (Three Village Scenes) from 1926, his orchestration of three of seven folk-tune settings for women’s voices and piano. These are colorful, jangly and sometimes raw evocations of village life from Slovakia (an irony: traditionally, there is little love lost between Hungarians and Slovakians, who have a fraught history of sometimes forced union and angry separation), comprising a wedding song that alternates peppy interpolations into a surprisingly sober matrix (sample stanza: “I’m a rose, a rose,/but only when I’m single./When I have a husband,/petals drop and shrivel”), a lullaby whose complex rhythms would have made rocking the cradle a challenge, and whose sinister undertones in the bass add emotional complexity, and a muscular, “boyz ‘n the ‘hood” Lad’s Dance full of jumpy off-beat accents and a hint of jazziness. The women’s vocal group Lorelei Ensemble added sure intonation, precise vocalization (don’t ask us about their Hungarian pronunciation!) and lively and engaged faces and bodies to their supple and well-projected sound. Rose lavished attention on Bartók’s vivid orchestral effects.

Ligeti in file photo

Ligeti in file photo

Last came the other premiere, The Debrecen Passion by Kati Agócs, a Canadian of half-Hungarian-extraction who now teaches at New England Conservatory and has garnered a good deal of attention. Her work is not a passion in the sense of the oratorio-sized works of Bach and other Baroque composers, or in the revived style of Penderecki’s, but is a setting of seven lyric-sized texts, three by Hungarian poet, novelist and literary historian Szilárd Borbély (1964-2014; he committed suicide in Debrecen, where he had lived and worked), two contemplations of Mary, one Latin the other Hungarian, one Kabbalistic prayer and one medieval Georgian hymn. In these settings Agócs examines passions of several sorts, the fragility of love, the greatness of God, and, oh yes, the death of Jesus. In the panel discussion, Agócs said that her funding source, the Jebediah Foundation, had given her carte blanche to create as big and as long a work as she felt like, and this 20-plus-minute piece (her longest to date) is fitted out with impressive orchestral forces, plus the Lorelei singers. While far from inaccessible, her writing is intricate and layered. Much of the choral treatment draws on earlier Ligeti techniques of “micro-polyphony,” densely packed, close dissonant harmony that, in the vocal writing, sounded ravishingly beautiful. Setting modern poetry can be tricky, and Borbély’s was not always easy to parse; Agócs wisely avoided overt word-painting. The orchestral writing was fluent and often did its job well of adding emotional depth to the texts and the vocal lines; in two instances there were orchestral interludes of great power and beauty, and the final Georgian hymn concludes (save a final blast and morendo from the orchestra) in a modally inflected harmony that evokes Alan Hovhaness (okay, he was Armenian, not Georgian, but musically it’s pretty close).

First hearings of new works are seldom a sufficient basis for informed analysis, especially for such a complicated piece; the Karosi was much less demanding in its ambitions. While there was much attractive music here, which warrant further listening if possible, sometimes it felt as if each song followed the same musical trajectory of slow build, big climax, soft landing, so a little more variety might have been welcome. No complaints at all with Lorelei or the orchestra.

 See related interview here.