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Ligeti: The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Miller Theater, Columbia University, New York City, 12.11.2005 (BH)



Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (arr. Elgar Howarth in 1988, from Le Grand Macabre, 1974-77)

Ligeti: Ramifications (1968-69)

Ligeti: Sippal, doppal, nádihegedüvel (2000)

Ligeti: Violin Concerto (1989-93)



The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble

Timothy Weiss, conductor

Oberlin Percussion Group

Michael Rosen, conductor

Peter Evans, trumpet

Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano

Jennifer Koh, violin




Miller Theater has 688 seats, and every one was taken last Saturday night for a sensationally played all-Ligeti evening by a raft of talent from Oberlin College.  (For those outside the United States, this college in Ohio is renowned for its music program.)  Although the Violin Concerto received top billing, the remainder was every bit its equal, beginning with a superb fragment of Ligeti’s opera, Le Grand Macabre.  This is a seriously playful musical mind at work.  This excerpt, Mysteries of the Macabre, was created in 1987, when the scheduled soprano had to bow out unexpectedly at the last minute, and conductor Elgar Howarth recruited a trumpet player to do the part.  It worked.

To open, the musicians begin whispering, “Psstpsst…” and “Ch…chch…” with little fragments of sound passed to and fro.  Shortly the trumpet enters, occasionally accompanied by crumpled paper and kazoos, but the ultimate effect is very much like Webern – rarely does the entire group play simultaneously.  Timothy Weiss and the excellent Oberlin players gave this ten-minute romp a sparkling, precise performance, and Peter Evans was the agile and uninhibited soloist.

The Oberlin strings did a meticulous, shimmering job with Ramifications, an exploration of texture in the same world as Atmosphčres and Lontano.  To prepare, half of the twelve players tuned their instruments a quarter-tone sharp, resulting in a constantly fluctuating surface of microtones.  With the players standing in a semi-circle, Mr. Weiss slowly directed them to begin what the composer describes as a “taut, almost immobile, tonal fabric whose weave changed only very gradually.” 

Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres was acutely interested in the aural possibilities rendered by the Hungarian language, and is in many ways an ideal fit with Ligeti’s sonic palette.  Sippal, doppal, nádihegedüvel is a cycle of seven songs, starkly written for soprano and four percussionists, here the superb Mary Nessinger and her equally adventurous colleages, four Oberlin percussionists.  The opening Fabula (Fable) begins with what sounds like a primal incantation, before it is joined by slide whistles, with the following text:







The other mountain comes toward it.

The wolves howl:

Do not crush us!


I, a mountain,

you, too, a mountain,

we are indifferent to that.



The second Táncdal (Dance Song) uses nonsense syllables plus marimba and those slide whistles again, before the glistening Kînai Templom (Chinese temple) arrives with single-syllable words perched among a glittering array of bells and gongs.  Kuli (Coolie) continues the Chinese theme, becoming ever more frenzied, followed by the strangely calm Alma alma (Tizenkettedik szimfónia) or Dream (Twelfth Symphony) – a sweetly lilting folk song backed by the percussionists on harmonicas.  The sixth song, Keserédes (67. Magyar etüd) / Bitter-sweet (67th Hungarian etude) resembles some kind of obscure Indian ritual mixed with say, a melody by Noel Coward.  The final Szajkó (Parakeet) is a series of nonsense syllables that evoke a raving chatterbox of a bird, and shows the composer in love with the percussive possibilities of the Hungarian language.  The cumulative effect is sort of like hearing a joke in a foreign language; you can sense that it’s funny but you don’t know why.

Ms. Nessinger, well-known for her affinity for new music, alternately laughed and blazed her way through these songs, sparkling with pure, light tone coupled with an impressive poker face when needed.  Conductor Michael Rosen had just the right humorous touch, and the outstanding musicians – Matthew Cook, Jonathan Hepfer, Michael Lehman and Jared Twenty – did everything asked for in a work that extends the boundaries of what most percussion players are required to do.  (Rhetorical query of the day: Is the harmonica usually on their menu?)

The Violin Concerto is a beast of a piece, here made even more so with a ferociously difficult new cadenza by John Zorn.  In five sections, the work is notable for some unusual additions – most notably ocarinas and slide whistles, the latter getting quite a workout in this concert – and for two musicians, violin and viola, who must adjust their instruments to be “out-of-tune” with the rest of the orchestra.  The result is a slight “twang” when these two clash, giving an impression of what the composer describes as “fragility and danger.”

Highlights of this brilliant performance by the inexhaustible Jennifer Koh included the Passacaglia: lento intenso, in which time seems to stand still until the ear-splitting ending (at a dynamic level marked ffffffff).  In the dramatic final movement, Zorn’s cadenza worked Koh pretty hard, with portions fearsomely dense and causing more than a few bow hairs to split from the intensity, and the audience responded with a veritable uproar at the end.



Bruce Hodges








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