IN: Reviews

Dear Esteemed Publisher:


Since you and your reviewers missed last night’s First Monday concert at NEC, one of a series in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), and in remembrance of a memorable visit to NEC he made in 1993, I make bold to report on a remarkable affair, enhanced by Lawrence Lesser’s amiable yet penetrating preconcert remarks.

Ligeti wrote his Poeme Symphonique in 1962 for 100 mechanical (meaning wind-up) metronomes. Knowing how my mechanical metronomes long ago malfunctioned and were consigned to a dumpster, it must have been a feat for Lesser to find 100 of these dinosaurs. Luckily, Boston University (and NEC) faculty member and composer Rodney Lister, collects metronomes; he provided the instruments (apparently this composition was an important motivation for the collection). In the event, 98 made it to the stage (due to illness of a few of thos wooden pyraminds, they needed a skilled metronomologist to take them apart and restore their innards). They were arrayed on 4 tables, mainly old fashioned Taktells or similar, of pyramidal shape, tempi set randomly. Ten so-called “metronomists,” (a Lesser coinage for the occasion) set the machines going. Far from being a joke, the effect was startling and a bit unnerving. It began as white noise, then it morphed to the sound of a heavy rainstorm on a metal roof; random tickings over time linked in waves of spooky synchronizations. I was put in mide of a review in the Intelligencer some years ago about a concert at Rockport where the music was at one tempo and a sailboat’s mast, visible from the seats, was rocking at a different, competing one. At 10 minutes or so they began, one by one, to run out of steam. The ones set to Presto ran out first, burning up their life-force, then slower ones that had not been wound up very tightly gave up the ghost. The tickings slowly thinned, like the last kernels of popcorn in a microwave bag, then suddenly petered out. Though written as a protest against radicalism in contemporary music the Poeme could also be taken as an allegory for life’s end or a Metronome Ensemble for the End of Time. 

Ligeti’s Horn Trio came next.  It was written in 1977 as an homage to Brahms’ Trio with the same unusual instrumentation (piano, violin, horn). Ligeti famously envisioned the horn as a Waldhorn, a nod to the historical keyless roots of the modern horn. This piece, notoriously thorny and difficult to play requires a great deal of flexibility in the hornist’s embouchure switching between modern horn with keys providing access to chromatic scales and Waldhorn technic to obtain the desired tonal effect, notes Ligeti envisioned as “coming from a distance deep in the forest”. It also requires great rhythmic and technical facility from the piano and violin. Hornist William Purvis proved up to the task, playing fortissimo hunting fanfares with bell held on high, as well as fantastic high or low sustained ppp notes, the former of which sounded almost flute-like. Mihae Lee’s transparent piano allowed the violin and horn to shine through, and she nailed the demonic ostinato in the second movement. Lee evinced an amazing sonic portfolio, from pianississimo gossamer to triple forte shouts from the lowest keys and seemed incapable of producing a bad sounding note. Violinist Gabriela Diaz similarly gavea spectacularly nuanced, flexible and subtle account, especially in the last movement’s stratospheric high notes, which evoked the closing of Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time. Memorable.

Schubert’s final string quartet in G major closed the First Monday. It was written in 1826, two years before his death but published posthumously. Why was Schubert programmed in a celebration of Ligeti? Apparently during Ligeti’s visit to NEC in 1993 the Borromeo played his Second String quartet for him to help them to prepare that extraordinary and difficult piece (spoiler alert: they are playing it at an upcoming First Monday concert). Ligeti asked them what else they were working on, and this was it. According to Lesser’s remarks, Ligeti expounded on the tension between major and minor modes and relate it to pre-modal works such as Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  He also made the very apt observation that he loved this quartet because of its constant war between G major and g minor beginning at the first two chords of the work. The Borromeo Quartet took up this war for the next 50 minutes. This ranked among the best performances I have heard from the Borromeo. Agile first violinist Nicholas Kitchen demonstrated a light touch with Schubert’s memorable melodies and embellishments.  He was matched by crack second violinist (and marathoner) Kristopher Tong. I continue to be impressed by cellist Yeesun Kim, whose bold sound and rhythm anchored the group. Their new violist, Melissa Reardon, who joined the quartet this past summer, melded with the group as though she had been there for years. Vigorous applause and a standing ovation followed this outstanding performance.

A video version of Lesser‘s remarks is available HERE.

Jeffrey S. Berman is Professor of Medicine at Boston University. He has been a clarinetist in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra and a member of several music boards in the Boston area.

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