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Adès and Gerstein Celebrate Ligeti’s Centennial

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Thomas Adès, conductor (Winslow Townson photo)

Those with the good fortune to attend one of this week’s BSO triplicate concerts can expect to enjoy the productive collaboration between conductor-composer-pianist Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein.   Further, a Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert (Sunday, November 19th) will feature these long-time friends in a two-piano work by Ligeti and will also include the American premiere of Növények by Adès.

The first of these three concerts displaying Adès’s intense, athletic leading of a varied four-work program, each mind-bending for its time, opened with Liszt’s Les Préludes Symphonic Poem No. 3, after the French poet Lamartine, and then Gerstein’s mesmerizing performance of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, and post-intermission, Stravinsky’s Orpheus, Ballet in three scenes and, finally, Adès’s Tevot for large orchestra.

The well-known 1854 Liszt, with its pastoral beginning initiated with dawn-like phrasing, yet moments of storm, struggle and triumph, possibly the world’s first work labeled a “symphonic poem,” features full orchestra, including harp and percussion. Liszt kept his precise inspiration mysterious, despite his emotive description. In this rendition Adès virtually became the music, his conducting intensely drawing full emotion from the orchestra. 

The Liszt readied the audience for the celebratory centennial of György Ligeti, the unique and widely acclaimed Hungarian composer, who wrote challenging, dazzling, wise and witty works that reflected not only his heritage but his uncanny humor and inventiveness. Luckily for us, he survived both World War II and later upheaval in Hungary.   Gerstein with Adès and the orchestra treated the capacity audience to an articulate, approachable  and collaborative performance of Ligeti’s gem of a piano concerto, which includes a spell-binding array of percussion instruments –and 1-2 percussionists playing at  intervals, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, flexatone, suspended cymbals, siren whistle, police whistle, lotus flute, harmonica in C, guiro, castanets, whip, wood blocks, temple blocks, tambourine, bongos, tom-toms, snare drum, base drum. The rest of the orchestra seemed visually pruned, seated apart, as on a post-apocalyptic latter-day stage set.  

Kirill Gerstein, piano (Winslow Townson photo)

The long-in-gestation five-movement work contains plenty of surprises, musical ambush and solace.  Gerstein is more than up to the precision, timing and verve required for this concerto in which the pianist dominates the initial Vivace molto ritmico e preciso with pulsating, forceful drive, with piccolo and percussion providing a vibrant jungle-like ambience, with tuttis at times. The contrasting Lento e deserto second movement provides polymetrics to good effect and sounds reminiscent of mourning cries. Its initial pianissimo seems reminiscent of Ligeti’s first étude, Désordre later interrupted by startling, bleak winds.  Many themes within this spellbinding concerto conjure Ligeti’s earlier work, especially true for the third Vivace cantabile movement, which carries the lamentation in a falling motif from the prior movement forward only to become rapid and mood changing. The fourth movement, Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico provides sound fragments, according to the composer, in part inspired by fractal images. The final movement, Presto Luminoso, fluido, constante, sempre molto ritmico inspired with a trio of time signatures, contains surprising flashbacks to the initial movement and dissonant mosaics from earlier movements. Despite the concerto’s quiet ending, Gerstein’s rendition conferred excitement, if not euphoria. ,

Stravinsky completed Orpheus in 1947, one of his many compositions based on Greek myths, this one first performed by the Ballet Society (currently called the New York City Ballet) in 1948, along with unique costumes and scenery by Isamu Noguchi and Maria Tallchief as Eurydice and Nicholas Magallanes as Orpheus. Harpist  Jessica Zhou’s exquisitely focused playing framed the ensemble of strings, woodwinds and brass, plus timpani. In the first scene Orpheus laments Eurydice’s death, Dance of the Furies follows and precedes Orpheus’s Apotheosis. Even without the dancers, this version enchanted.

Adès’s Tevot (2007) for large orchestra, Opus 24 by Adès, co-commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and the Carnegie Hall Corporation, is a stunner, and  for starters, has a triple entendre title—bars of music, and more specifically, vessels, particularly two biblical vessels—Noah’s Ark and the cradle that carried the baby, Moses, on the Nile. Surprisingly nimble and eventful, it starts in heavenly yet ominous manner, with high tunes carried by the strings; moan-like waves from lower pitched instruments follow, then build in intensity. One hears 12-tone riffs bursting out, then suddenly going quiet and calm―lyrical after the storm. The soothing portion, which lasts for around half of the work nevertheless contains surprises. At moments, layered harmonies, striking combinations of instruments such as lone strings and winds in varied combinations. I felt as if I were on Noah’s ark gone modern, and I was not quite ready to get off.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

9 Comments »

9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. All in all a wonderful concert by the BSO. Ironically I was only familiar with the Ligeti and Adès works in advance of the concert. The Liszt was an enjoyable romp. To my eyes, Adès added mostly flourish to the performance, letting the band run its paces. The Ligeti was well executed after things settled down, although the balance made the softer moments of piano hard to hear. The Stravinsky was delightful and I loved finally getting to hear Tevot live. Bravo!

    Comment by Mark Tomko — November 17, 2023 at 5:48 pm

  2. I was puzzled at the choice to play the Ligeti with just one of each string section (one first violin, one second violin, etc.), as the program notes say it was scored for a full (if small) string section. I found it difficult to hear the string parts. Wondering if anyone else has insight into this choice.

    Comment by Ruth Hertzman-Miller — November 17, 2023 at 10:11 pm

  3. I hated, hated, Hated what Ades did with the Ligeti. From my point of view the Boston Symphony did not perform Ligeti’s piano concerto for piano AND ORCHESTRA, but an arrangement of it for a chamber ensemble (not orchestra). The audience was not informed of this choice. Throughout the piece I was distracted by the question “Where’s the orchestra?” Ruth I spoke with both an orchestra member and Robert Kirzinger, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications during the intermission. It seems that Ades couldn’t get it together to present the piece as originally composed. The musician told me how difficult the piece was and that integrating the strings wasn’t working. He said that Ades felt that the balance was off; thus he opted to just omit almost all of the strings and go with a string quintet instead. This concerto was performed successfully by the New York Philharmonic earlier this fall as intended. Perhaps that orchestra is superior to the Boston Symphony. Of course it could reflect on Ades’s ability as a conductor or his unwillingness to make the effort to get it right. Kirzinger told me that he himself wasn’t made aware of the choice until the last moment. He did say that there was one recording of the concerto in this format. Gerstein played the piano part well, but it felt more like a sonata than a concerto. The absence of strings detracted from the performance; the sound in symphony hall felt thin. I also wonder whether Ades included all of the notated percussion. I don’t know whether 1 or 2 percussionists performed. From my seat location I noticed only 1, but there could have been a second one. I guess Julie couldn’t tell either. In reviews of the New York Philharmonic performance(s) there were references to percussive effects that I didn’t notice at Symphony Hall Thursday night. The interaction between the piano and the “spell-binding array of percussion instruments” is very important in this work. Were they all used as directed? Maybe! However, if so, from my point of view, the interaction could have been improved. I felt that we in Boston were shortchanged vis a vis those who got to hear this work in New York.

    Comment by Bennett — November 18, 2023 at 12:56 am

  4. I am surprised at the vehemence of Ms. Bennett’s remarks. She “hated” the Ligeti and wondered if the NY Phil was superior to the BSO. But there was no mention of the rest of the performance. She cites second-hand sources regarding Mr. Ade’s ability. I wonder if Mr. Kirzinger is happy with his name being used to disparage one of the great composers alive today.

    Comment by Rich Carle — November 18, 2023 at 9:11 pm

  5. Rich, Bennett is my first name. I use the pronouns he/him lol. On the outside of the program is a photo of Ligeti with the words “Ligeti 100: A Celebration.” The Ligeti piece was supposedly the centerpiece of the program. Ruth Hertzman-Miller asked about the choice to perform it with just 5 strings players.The New York Philharmonic was able to perform it as written. I expected and wanted to hear it with the orchestra. My second-hand source is a member of the orchestra and was present during the rehearsal process. It is a fact that Ades decided to switch how the concerto would be presented. Logically I felt that either the orchestra or the conductor was to blame for that. Do you have another theory? I said not a word about Ades’s ability as a composer and neither did Robert Kirzinger to me. All I said was that he himself was not aware of the upcoming change when he wrote his program notes. I had nothing significant to add about the rest of the program. I liked the Liszt and Ades, but found the Stravinsky kind of boring (although I did enjoy the harpist’s playing during the latter). Jessica Zhou really stood out during the Stravinsky. I like hearing works that are not familiar to me. I was happy to get to hear Orpheus, but, whether due to the performance or the work itself, it didn’t especially impress me.

    Comment by Bennett — November 18, 2023 at 11:51 pm

  6. Lots of vitriol here over not very much, since the composer sanctioned the option of the solo strings. More important: nowhere from Mr. Kirzinger’s notes and pe-concert lecture to the three reviews I have read is any mention made of the use to which Les Prèludes was put as background and drama enhancement for “The Lone Ranger” radio (and later television) broadcasts, which led to its wide popularity in decades past. Nor has anyone mentioned Ligeti’s indebtedness to Bartòk’s piano and percussion writing. (As for that Bartòk’s “less is more” approach to percussion was, at least for me [a recovering percussionist] more telling.)

    Comment by Wilhelm F. — November 19, 2023 at 10:47 am

  7. A quote from Ligeti’s introduction:

    “The string instrument parts (two violins, viola, cello and doubles bass) can be performed soloistic since they do not contain divisi. For balance, however, the ensemble playing is recommended, for example 6-8 first violins, 6-8 second, 4-6 violas, 4-6 cellos, 3-4 double basses. ”

    So the choice Adès made did not go against the composer’s instructions, but did disregard his recommendations. I think Ligeti was right; I was seated near the front, and in the first movement I could hear little besides the piano. The later movements weren’t so bad in that regard (and the whole performance, especially by Gerstein, was wonderful), but it would have been nice to hear the whole work with the orchestra Ligeti asked for, or hoped for.

    I have loved Stravinsky’s Orpheus for many years, but am not sure I have heard a live performance before. It was a great pleasure. Bennett is right that Jessica Zhou stood out. I’m glad for her sake that the BSO performed the work, which gives the harp, the orchestral analogue to Orpheus’s lyre, a more central role than it is accustomed to playing. It’s hard to forget. I cannot see a mention of the Orpheus myth without hearing that harp descending into the underworld.

    Comment by SamW — November 19, 2023 at 3:17 pm

  8. The Ligeti Concerto for Piano and Orchestra allows the option of performing the piece with single strings, stated clearly in the score. It’s true that I wasn’t aware of Adès’s choice until after print deadline for the program book, but the decision was made weeks in advance of rehearsals. I re-confirmed this as I wrote this response. I regret that my omission of that option in the program book led to what might have been an unfulfilled expectation on the commenter’s part.

    I did mention that I wasn’t made explicitly aware of the one-per-part decision, but by no means did I suggest it was a bad idea—in fact, I said Adès was making a point of going for clarity and for contrast with the Liszt, which option I support strongly.

    Bennett reports someone else saying the BSO was found inadequate to the task in rehearsal and therefore the switch was made, but that’s not factual, no matter who said it. To suggest that the choice was made because the BSO isn’t capable of playing the piece ignores the fact of that long-determined scheduling decision as well as all the Richard Strauss, Mackey, Ogonek, Adès, Ligeti, Gubaidulina, Berg, and other composers the BSO has performed phenomenally just in recent seasons. Adès himself has led his own music, Berg, Stravinsky, Ravel, Sibelius, Liszt, and Beethoven, among others, and returns each season with wonderful and technically challenging repertoire.

    A pity Bennett’s expectations weren’t fulfilled; sometimes that happens, even in Beethoven or Mahler. Fortunately we often get a few more chances to expand our expectations with those composers; hopefully he’ll have another chance with Ligeti’s concerto.

    Robert Kirzinger
    Boston Symphony Orchestra Director of Program Publications

    Comment by Robert Kirzinger — November 19, 2023 at 9:47 pm

  9. This was the concert I looked forward to most during the current season, and it did not disappoint me. I believe that Orpheus is one of Stravinsky’s finest works, and I thought the performance was beautiful. The rest of the program was also superb.

    Comment by Rob — November 20, 2023 at 11:30 am

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