The French connection

Modern music shines in the hands of expert performers.

Gyorgy Ligeti's "greatest hits," in America at any rate, are probably his orchestral Atmospheres (1961) and his choral Lux aeterna (1966), both chosen by Stanley Kubrick for the soundtrack of his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Hungarian composer's main musical concern is texture; as he puts it, the "dissolution of several basic structures into an overall structure . . . is one of the fundamental postulates of my compositions." We hear this easily in Atmospheres and Lux aeterna—swarms of "micropolyphonic" details (again, Ligeti's term) coalescing into a whole, a sort of musical coral reef.

Ensemble Intercontemporain

Meany Hall, April 21

It's also the technique he used in his Piano Concerto (1985-88), played magnificently by the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain last week. Because of the scoring, though, a one-of-everything group of strings, winds, brass, percussion, and solo piano, the colors stay differentiated; the concerto's surface is thus more chaotic than, say, Lux aeterna, in which the individual voices blend more readily into a steady-state sound mass.

Another hallmark of Ligeti's style (which makes him all but unique among the European postwar avant-garde) is his tweaking wit. He scattered rude musical interruptions throughout the concerto, even in the stunningly desolate slow movement. The title, too, is a loaded term that ironically connects this crackling piece to a grand, fusty old tradition—the Grieg A Minor, the Rachmaninoff Second, and others. (Similarly tongue-in-cheek was the opulent title Ligeti bestowed on his 1962 piece for 100 metronomes—to perform it, just wind 'em up and let 'em go—Po魥 symphonique. More than just a dadaist skit, the Po魥 is a quite absorbing sonic experience.)

The ensemble, founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez, is a full-time chamber orchestra of up to 31 players renowned for meticulously prepared performances of the most uncompromising modernist repertory. It previewed Ligeti's concerto Tuesday evening at a lecture-recital led by ensemble director David Robertson, one of the most illuminating and entertaining speakers on music I've ever heard. The formal concert on Wednesday featured three additional works. A marvelously sec rendering of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale displayed an exceptional precision and vitality of detail, especially from violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer. Lichtung, by University of Washington composition professor Jo묭Francois Durand, remained sensuous and lyrical in its splashes and smears of sound even as the tension and complexity slowly rose. With his title, Thalle﮼/I> ("Germination"), Iannis Xenakis drew analogies between plant growth and the work's massive grindings and subtle unfoldings. The resulting visceral sounds evoked animal and mineral activity—bird calls and tectonic shifts—as well as vegetable.

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