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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Lerdahl, Toledo, Levine, Kurtág: The Columbia Sinfonietta, Susan Narucki, Soprano, Jeffrey Milarsky, Conductor and music director, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, 11 April, 2005 (BH)

Fred Lerdahl: Time after Time (2000)
Marcelo Toledo: Resplandecencias de la nada (2001)
Josh Levine: Glimpses (1986, rev. 1988)
György Kurtág: Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, Op. 17 (1976-80)

This searing performance of Kurtág’s Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova only reaffirmed that it should be considered one of the masterpieces of the late 1970s, and as tossed off with astonishing ease by the great Susan Narucki will certainly be cited by many as one of the performances of the year. Although Kurtág could be considered a descendant of Anton Webern, with glistening tiny moments separated by silence, the similarities end fairly quickly. Kurtág infuses the latter’s spare elegance with a raw, emotional force, then grafts on other influences such as Hungarian folk music and minimalism, as well as his own inimitable theatricality. This is stunning material for the right performer, and Ms. Narucki sang these with the kind accuracy, intensity and confidence as if they had been written for her.

The texts are twenty-one short poems by Rimma Dalos, a Russian poet living in Hungary, which are arranged in three groups of two, four and fifteen poems respectively. Here is a sample from each section:

Part I, No. 1
In a space of 6 by 4 metres
At a pressure of 6,000 atmospheres of loneliness,
At a temperature of 400,000 degrees
of unfulfilled desires
a man is freezing

Part 2, No. 3
Why should I not
squeal like a pig,
when all around are grunting?

Part III, No. 9
Without you
I am like that woman in the bath-house
with her breasts cut off.

The large ensemble, nimbly conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, was altogether amazing in presenting Kurtág’s bracing ideas. This performance might be the most eloquent I’ve heard to date, although I have yet to hear it by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, for whom it was commissioned.

The rest of the program, if perhaps slightly eclipsed by the Kurtág, was still more than stimulating, and expertly performed by Jeffrey Milarsky and the Columbia Sinfonietta. Josh Levine’s Glimpses had a delicate shimmer befitting its title, and excellent work by Tara Helen O’Connor on flute, Daniel Panner on viola and Oren Fader on guitar. Argentinean composer Marcelo Toledo offered a quietly bracing labyrinth of extended techniques for small chamber ensemble, Resplandecencias de la nada (Resplendence of nothingness) , which drew on every color possible from the players, who were only occasionally asked for more conventional sounds. Ms. O’Connor and Marianne Gythfeld were excellent on flute and clarinet, respectively, occasionally tapping together what appeared to be pairs of metal thimbles. Pianist Stephen Gosling drew a threaded wire back and forth, sawing in between strings of the open piano lid, and brushed the keys with a stick. And harpist June Han began with a sheet of paper lodged in the harp strings, which she later strummed with spoons, and let a small stick clatter along the pegs. Pablo Rieppi was outstanding on percussion. It would be difficult to fully assess such a striking piece after just a single hearing, but perhaps a “more romantic” version of Helmut Lachenmann might suffice (just to help roughly place Toledo’s imaginative language in the proper universe).

Fred Lerdahl’s Time After Time began the program in a completely different mode, in a welcome aural break from the extended techniques that the other works shared. Aside from being assiduously crafted, Time After Time is assembled with sweeping, colorful gestures, played with abandon by Cyrus Beroukhim on violin, Wendy Sutter on cello, plus Ms. O’Connor and Mr. Gosling, plus Pablo Rieppi and Dominic Donato on percussion. With a kinetic first movement, followed by one more serene, it was an easy piece to enjoy (not a euphemism for unsophisticated), with dramatically conceived shifts in mood and color. Lerdahl, who teaches at Columbia University, was on hand to enjoy a rousing ovation.

Bruce Hodges

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