For the 2022 birthday celebrations of both Emmerich Kálmán (Kálmán Imre) and his daughter, Yvonne Kálmán (his last living offspring), a grand gala was staged at the Budapest Operetta Theatre on 10 and 11 September.
That evening, organized and staged by Zsolt Hommonay, presented selections from the composer’s greatest operetta scores, performed by the theatre’s mighty roster of solo singers, dancers, orchestra and chorus, conducted by Gyula Pfeiffer. Dazzling new sets and costumes were designed by Balázs Cziegler and Petra Jenei, respectively.
Actor Gábor Dézsy-Szabó performed a winning onstage portrayal of the composer in the heyday of his career, all the while holding the leash on his beloved dachshund, who also enjoyed the spotlight, to the delight of the audience. Dézsy-Szabó’s script was composed of many of Kálmán’s real-life quotes.
The sweetest surprise was the appearance of Yvonne in the audience. She had travelled from Mexico to Budapest for the occasion, and the superb company of singers and dancers paid a spectacular tribute to her father’s musical legacy. At a specially arranged moment, General Director Atilla Kiss-B., burst into song to announce her presence and the auditorium was bombarded with shiny gold strips of glitter paper.
The impressive number of songs and dances in this joyous pastiche gave us a wonderful cross-section of Kálmán’s works and whetted my appetite to see more of his operettas, which the company does in repertory alongside other famous operettas, new shows, and Hungarian translations of Broadway shows. If you’ve never heard Kálmán’s delightful music, buy a ticket for October 24, when the company will present “Dream, Dream, Sweet Dream – a festival for Hungarian Operetta Day.” It’s also his actual 140th birthday celebration!
In praise of Xenakis’ 100th birthday
The Romanian-born Greek-French composer, Iannis Xenakis, turned 100 in May of this year (he died in 2001). I’m personally disappointed that his centenary has not been more observed and celebrated* around the world with the kind of attention that is afforded Kálmán, whose memory is deeply treasured everywhere.
In addition to having created a uniquely new musical language that was vastly different than many of his contemporaries like Bartók, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky, Xenakis was also an architect, an engineer, and a mathematician. Though his compositional structures were influenced by math modeling, stochastic processing, and game theory, his music resists any hint of overwrought mechanical manipulation but instead shines with an unusually bright glow of originality, humor, and intensity.
The Mikamo Central European Chamber Ensemble, which for this concert included the Quasar Ensemble from Bratislava, illustrated this assessment in their concert at the Budapest Music Center on 11 September. Their program of six contemporary pieces began with Xenakis’ “Aroura.” The ensemble’s director and conductor/composer, Ajtony Csaba, gave a verbal tribute to Xenakis: “He was just as classical [in his time] as Liszt and Beethoven were in theirs.”
“Aroura,” which is the Greek word for “earth,” was written in 1971 for 12 stringed instruments wherein each instrument represents layers of the earth. That’s a very simplified description — Xenakis’ approach is unashamedly dramatic rather than scientific: he digs down into those layers and finds the electric current that shifts them. The piece begins with a brief blizzard, then a mild wind, then other sounds of atmospheric phenomena. His modus operandi is communication – describing for us a complete eco-sphere of event and denouement.
His sonic architecture, instead of any identifiable melody or traditional chordal harmony, is streams of hyper-sonic vapor trails, a pulsing bass line that re-charges our oxygen levels, hauling lumber around the room, and at one point he puts a delicate spotlight on two cellos finding each other in the darkness. All this is accomplished with mere bows and strings. He makes me appreciate stringed instruments in a new way – instead of melody hogs, they are collective painters. His world is a new world, and he created it just 50 years ago.
*I must give credit to the musical curators of the 2022 Berliner Festspiele, who honored Xenakis with a series of orchestral concerts that included his music earlier this month.