By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic
February 26, 2007
Music as dense, difficult and willfully strange as Gyorgy Ligeti's Violin Concerto doesn't often inspire such an active performance track record so early on. Premiered in 1992, the piece has been recorded thrice, has toured with the Berlin Philharmonic, and has been played at Royal Albert Hall. Yet when Orchestra 2001 took it over the weekend in Philadelphia and Swarthmore, the piece was revealed in ways more important than some of its higher-profile performances.
Although composed on a scale nearly the size of the Brahms and Bartok violin concertos, the piece communicates so much more effectively in a venue as small as Swarthmore's Lang Concert Hall. The sonic homogenization that happens even in a well-engineered recording can blunt the piece's carefully partitioned but eccentric orchestration. In addition to those entrancing swarms of music heard in the Ligeti choral works used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the concerto has wacky collages echoing his Brueghel-inspired opera, Le Grand Macabre, in which the trivial sounds of the ocarina mock and goad you from their unlikely orchestral context.
On Friday, the orchestra laid out the concerto with so much clarity and drama that you could easily assemble the pieces according to your own consciousness on that day, aided by the remarkable soloist Jennifer Koh. Although Orchestra 2001 has had its share of faltering performances with challenging repertoire, this wasn't one, in what was also one of artistic director James Freeman's best-assembled programs.
The first half had expansive, lyrical composers headed by Earl Kim and his Three Poems in French. The music's manner is all-purpose, early-20th-century French but with a directness that comes from organic, musically selfless settings of great poems by Baudelaire and Verlaine. The performance was magical. I don't like all regions of Jody Karin Applebaum's soprano, but the low-ish range and conversational manner of Kim's vocal lines inspired singing whose sound and text characterization eerily resembled the great Debussy interpreter Maggie Teyte.
The orchestra premiered Luis Prado's Two Poems of Joan Hutton Landis. As it now stands, the piece is a feverish diptych: The two poems, one of which unflinchingly explores generations of physical brutality, lack a clear emotional relationship, but seem waiting to be explained in a larger, yet-to-be-written piece. The composer has taken an exciting step into a disturbing musical world - one that needs further exploration. Much further.
© 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer