Saturday, March 12, 2011

Remarkably Simple and Highly Complex

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in a program titled "Hungarian Echoes." I heard it, with LW, on Thursday.

Hadyn's Symphony No. 6 in D major, Le Matin (1761) was composed as the first part of three "Times of the Day" symphonies, the other two being No. 7, Le Midi (The Noon) and No. 8 Le Soir (The Evening). Having been newly appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, and having just revamped the musical staff, Hayden was keen to show off his brilliance at composition to his new employer, and to consolidate his relationship with his musicians by writing for them virtuosic, concerto-like passages. I especially like the third movement, which changes from a Menuet to a Trio midway, launched by the unusual combination of bassoon and double bass, and featuring a rare role for the viola.

The second work was György Ligeti's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1985-86/88). Pianist Marino Formenti replaced Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who withdrew due to illness. Besides the piano, there were a flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet (doubling alto ocarina), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, triangle, crotales, suspended cymbals, small and medium tambourines, snare drum, roto-toms, tom-toms, bass drum, wood-blocks, temple-blocks, guiro, castanets, slapstick, mouth siren, police whistle, slide whistle, flexatone, Chromonica, orchestra bells, xylophone, and strings. The percussionist was very busy throughout the performance.

The description of the work is from the program notes:
The Concerto's first movement is rich in polyrhythms that are laid out in superimposed meters. The second movement, though slow, is not solemn: here, low instruments sometimes play unusually high, and high instruments low, and the sounds of an ocarina and a slide whistle obviate the possibility of unbroken gravity. The third movement is a scherzo, and the fourth--the first of the work's expansion--is exceptionally complex, "its formal process," Ligeti explained: 
is fractal in time: reiterating the same formula, the same succession always in different shapes, using simultaneous augmentation and diminution of the same models . . . focusing on smaller and smaller details.
The movement builds up to quite an uproar, after which the concluding Presto luminoso seems more a coda than an emphatic sort of finale.

The piano is played as a percussive instrument, a strategy that becomes structural when it is paired with the xylophone to end the last movement. I also love how the polyrhythms create a spatial sense of the piece, with certain rhythms undergirding others like a floor, or floating above them like a ceiling.

In his preface to a book by Simha Arom on the music of the Central African Republic, Ligeti wrote appealingly of
the proximity I feel exists between (Central African polyphonic music) and my own way of thinking with regards to composition: that is, the creation of structures which are both remarkably simple and highly complex (italics mine).

He continued:
the patterns performed by the individual musicians are quite different from those which result from their combination. In fact, the ensemble's super-pattern is in itself not played and exists only as an illusory outline. ... What we can witness in this music is a wonderful combination of order and disorder which in turn merges together, producing a sense of order at a higher level.

Ligeti's concern for order and disorder resonates with me, as does his optimistic hope for "a sense of order at a higher level." The insight here is that the "super-pattern" itself is not played, but exists only as "an illusory outline." I heard this outline, in a much simpler form, in the drumming of two street musicians in the subway, a man and a woman, the woman looking slightly older than the man, but who are conceivably lovers. There is music here that I have to reproduce in my next book.

After intermission, we heard Belá Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (1943). The program notes that in a "concerto for orchestra," individual players or sections of the orchestra are given their sequential moments in the spotlight; Hindemith wrote what seemed to be the first example in 1925. The players played the Bartók well, but the music did not appeal as much to me as either the Hayden or the Ligeti.

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