Music Ensemble Conquers Contemporary Pieces
Crowds turned out in large numbers to Warner Concert Hall Thursday night to hear the prestigious Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble’s program of works by living Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti. The concert is also scheduled to be given on Saturday at Columbia Univeristy’s Miller Theater in New York City.
The concert included four works from various periods of Ligeti’s career, painting an accurate picture of a composer of incredibly diverse music.
First on the program was Mysteries of the Macabre for solo trumpet and a very small orchestra. On the trumpet was Peter Evans (OC ’03) who has spent the past few days in residence at Oberlin. The piece was an arrangement of a section of Ligeti’s 1978 opera Le Grand Macabre, made to accommodate a sick soprano. Often during the piece, Evans and various ensemble members were called to vocalize rather than play their instruments. This device became a point of return and departure throughout the concert.
The piece demonstrated Ligeti’s attention to minute orchestrational details. Various percussion instruments, string pizzicati, piano chords and other sounds were often used to punctuate specific notes in the melodies. As a result, the color of the piece was constantly in flux. Ligeti’s sense of humor was also highlighted by his prominent use of the xylophone and a disorienting false ending, among other things.
The second piece was Ramifications, written in the late 1960s for 12 string instruments. Lacking discernable melody and rhythm, the work highlighted Ligeti’s strength as a textural composer. The strings were divided into two groups of six, one group tuned slightly off the other. When the groups were put together, they created a dense, amorphous sound that Ligeti has referred to as “micropolyphony.” This sound was made famous by the inclusion of his earlier work Atmospheres in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey.
Next was Sippal, Dobbal, Nadihegeduvel, composed in 2000 for soprano and four percussionists. The singer was Mary Nessinger, who specializes in contemporary music. The percussionists were drawn from the Oberlin Percussion Group.
The piece is in seven movements, each a setting of a poem by Sandor Weores, also Hungarian, and a friend of Ligeti’s.
At the composer’s disposal was a massive percussion battery including three marimbas, vibraphone, chimes, gongs, cymbals, whistles and drums, as well as four ocarinas and four harmonicas.
With these instruments, an incredible variety of sound was achieved. In the third movement, he used only the metallic percussion to accompany a slow, sustained, subdued vocal line.
Ligeti’s constant shifting of registers and instruments created a different sonority for each note. In the fifth movement, his use of the four harmonicas in different keys to form complicated clusters was breathtaking.
In the sixth, his combination of a marimba and a sustained vibraphone created an almost organ-like sound.
Meanwhile, his vocal writing was incredibly varied, sometimes bold, sometimes lyrical, sometimes speechlike.
The final piece was Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, written from 1989-1993. The soloist was Jennifer Kh (OC ’97. In five movements, the piece was rooted in Bartok and Hungarian folk music.
The work had the orchestrational detail of Mysteries, the diverse colors (and the ocarinas) of Sippal, and by inserting two abnormaly tuned string instruments into the orchestra, Ligeti echoed some of the textures of Ramifcations, but the piece had moments of intense lyricism that weren’t present anywhere else on the program.
The second movement was dominated by a gorgeous folk-like melody begun by the soloist and passed throughout the orchestra.
The other highlight of the piece was the incredibly virtuosic, dramatic violin cadenza near the end of the last movement, followed by a short percussive outburst from the orchestra and a sustained note in the ocarinas that closed the concert.
The performances of Koh and the other soloists were nothing less than inspired.
Except for some dubious high French horn passages, in fact, the entire concert was well- played, justifying the CME’s reputation as the best performance group on campus.
A better tribute to one of the world’s greatest living composers could
not have been made at the concert.