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The Magical Musical Theatre

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/29/2009 -  
Making Music:
Peter Eötvös: Shadows – Encore (US Premiere) – Octet plus (US Premiere) – Psy for Flute, Cello and Piano(US Premiere) – Derwischtanz (US Premiere) – Snatches of a Conversation

Barbara Hannigan (Soprano), Brandon Ridenour (Double-Bell Trumpet)
Ensemble ACJW, Peter Eötvös (Conductor and Pianist), Jeremy Geffen (Series Moderator)

Peter Eötvös (© Istvan Huszti)

While this was my initiation to the music of Peter Eötvös, from the very first notes of his Shadows, memories came back of notes a thousand generations before they were created.

First, an apology for such a facile beginning. Schooled in the most complex modes of Cologne-styled serial techniques, the music of Peter Eötvös is technically as adept as any written today. But unlike so many of his colleagues, Peter Eötvös is a man of the theatre. His operas are based dramatic literature Chekhov to Garcia Marquez and Tony Kushner. Add another dimension: Eötvös’ emphases on spacing and movement, so his instruments become virtual characters in themselves, displaying as much kinetic energy as the music.

Finally, before the music itself, Mr. Eötvös, as a Hungarian, born in the Rumanian province of Transylvania, maturing with the music and rituals of the Orthodox Church, Islam, perhaps Sephardic Judaism, he is as aware that other worlds of music exist outside of Cologne and his dodecaphonic colleagues.

It was Eastern European background which made this music so familiar in an inner sense. His Dervish Dance for three clarinets put three women soloists each in their own pin-light, s-l-o-w-l-y turning in their own circles, while the music, mainly the high registers were playing a microtone apart. The audience, perhaps thinking of the “whirling” dervish, were not aware that the Sufi mystics moved just as s-l-o-w-l-y as these women, that this really was a dance of mysticism.

In the very first Shadows, with an orchestra of 24 soloists against a solo flute and solo clarinet standing the middle of the stage, we had the makings of a concerto grosso. But in the third movement, a “Funeral Dance”, again arcane memories floated into my own mind. To the audience, the “dance” accentuated by the bass drum was funereal enough. But having lived in this area several years, it was obvious that Peter Eötvös was translating old harmonies, old modal structures into a more complex form.

It was another Hungarian, Béla Bartók, who said that the greatest stage of folk material was where it was impossible to recognize anything specifically “folk” except the mood. Mr. Eötvös, with all his serial techniques exemplified that perfectly.

The six works were rather short, though the program lasted more than two hours. One reason was that instruments had to be moved on and off stage, and this obviously was time-consuming. But it was central to the music that nothing extraneous could be left on stage. A piano couldn’t be stored in a corner if only a string quartet was on stage. The stage was the theatre and the world.

But even that string quartet, playing the three-minute Encore, a tribute to György Kurtág, was so passionate in its microtonal playing that one felt mere clock duration was of no consequence.

While the 16-odd layers of Ensemble ACJW (most of them doubling on two instruments) was more than impressive, following conductor Eötvös’ meticulous beats, Canadian singer Barbara Hannigan was….well, nearly impossibly good. As a specialist in performing Ligeti, Stockhausen and Eötvös, she of course has a range of probably near three octaves. But more, she follows all the breaths, the swoops, and the whispers In the final Snatches of a Conversation, she was almost completely voiceless, yet one could hear her every word.

And since it is so necessary for this composer, Ms. Hannigan was an actor as well. During Octave Plus, while the mainly brass ensemble sat in a shadowy darkness, Ms. Hannigan wandered out into her own light, gracefully sitting, lying and rising, all the time singing (or breathing) parts of Samuel Beckett’s radio play Embers.

A confession now, that while I am rarely enamored of abstract serial music, there are exceptions, and last night was one of them. During Octet Plus, the orchestra played works of close microtones, of scales and exclamations, turning a serial row into almost literal punctuations for Ms. Hannigan. Yet listening oh so carefully, the music had a consonant sound. The composer revels in old-fashioned major thirds, simple scale passages which repeat themselves with fractional precision, and with orchestral color of a Berlioz.

But Ms. Hannigan’s lyrical work offered, , as I felt at the beginning, a sense of something….something more than magical, more than theatrical It was like a Jungian memory.

And then I recognized it. Many decades ago, I was living on a Korean island where shamanism was regularly practiced. One night I went to the sea, and a Korean lady was keening …or chanting. It was ageless and magical. And—whether Peter Eötvös knew it or not—those were the sounds he had created for his singer.

After the concert, records of Mr. Eötvös music were being sold, but I was not interested. His is a music which must be experienced live. Even more important, one must pay attention to every note, every movement, every gesture. This music, while stunningly beautiful at times, is neither reverie nor comfort. It is a music memory and sorcery and produces ever-increasing awe.

Harry Rolnick



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