Springtime in Budapest blossomed with a panoply of events to celebrate the 100th birthday (May 28th) of one of its most celebrated composers, György Ligeti. His vast array of works, starting from his teenage years until his death in 2006, is a circus of styles, most of which provoke the prevailing orthodoxy. His music hit the mainstream when film director Stanley Kubrick used four of his scores in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and subsequent compositions for “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
April and May in Budapest saw multiple concerts, events, exhibits, lectures, celebrated musical artists from around the world, and a public ceremony for a name-change of the street (from Imre to György Ligeti) aside the venue where most of the events took place: the Budapest Music Center (BMC). There, the week of May 22-28 alone offered 14 events in three different halls in the BMC.
While his earlier works dug deeply into his Hungarian-Transylvanian roots of folk music modes and characteristic rhythms, his later works punched a big fist into anything that reeked of tradition. As a way to understand his iconoclasm, looking at his life trajectory reveals a lot. He was a Hungarian born in Romania, a Jew discriminated against in Hungary, persecuted by both Nazis and Communists, sent to a labor camp in 1944, and his father and brother perished in the Holocaust. “These experiences shaped his self-image as a minority figure,” states musicologist Ben Levy in the music website sfcv.org. “But it’s also an image he cultivated: Ligeti as the perpetual outsider.”
Setting the stage
As a prelude to May’s many Ligeti-oriented events, the Müpa Budapest mounted a poster exhibit of Ligeti’s life and career in its corridors, and the Museum of Music History created an elaborate showcase devoted to Ligeti’s work, which included manuscripts, theatre posters, paintings, a documentary film, photos, and personal paraphernalia.
Previous to the centenary month, the Mikamo Chamber Orchestra presented an extraordinary concert at BMC on April 23, wherein they juxtaposed four short works each from Ligeti and his life-long friend and colleague György Kurtág (some with newer orchestral arrangements by Hans Abrahamsen), as a tasty preview for what was to come.
On April 29th, the Liszt Academy presented “In the Footsteps of Ligeti” which featured four young international composers’ works that took inspiration from Ligeti. The grand finale was his “Hamburg Concerto” a seven-part suite which employs rather unusual forces: four natural horns (early models without finger pistons) and a modern horn soloist who uses both the natural harmonics and piston-controlled tuning. This piece, written in 1999 and revised in 2002, was our first glimpse of Ligeti’s later, more avant-garde sound-world.
The Ligeti legacy explored
Given the large number of performances, I will highlight some of them here that revealed varied aspects of Ligeti’s oeuvre, some of which are in conjunction with Kurtág.
On May 2nd, the Budapest Sound Collective, a progressive ensemble that reflects Ligeti’s capricious spirit, started the retrospective at the Liszt Academy with Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe (1972). Maestro Gergely Dubóczky led an energized interpretation this charming chamber work featuring a plummy alto flute solo, slow-boil tempos, and a painterly scenario of a beehive, ending with a mysterious swirl.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra (led by Iván Fischer), from May 11-14 at Müpa, plunged us headlong into Ligeti’s most daring work: “Mysteries of the Macabre” — a soprano aria excerpted from his only opera: “Le Grande Macabre” (1975–77, second version 1996). Set in fictitious ‘Breughelland,’ its outrageous characters satirize every aspect of society. For this concert, soprano Anna-Lena Elbert dashed onto the stage uttering nonsense syllables and comedic antics that included singing a flotilla of extreme high notes. [This same tour-de-force aria was repeated with soprano Sarah Defrise and the Ligeti Ensemble in the May 28th grand finale. Both singers were extraordinary.]
For the May 22-28 Ligeti week at BMC, four important living figures were involved: Vera Ligeti (his wife, now 93); his son Lukas Ligeti, a renown composer; György Kurtág (now 97); and György Kurtág, Jr., also a composer. Although he now uses a wheelchair, Kurtág Sr. attended every performance at the BMC, and the two sons performed in several concerts.
Highlights of the week included the opening night’s burst of energy from the Budapest Strings’ delivery of Ligeti’s 1949 colorful suite of “Old Hungarian Social Dances” as was the closing concert’s “Concert Românesc” with András Keller conducting the UMZE Ensemble — both scores based on regional folk sources; the many mixed-bag concerts of many smaller works such as Ligeti’s “With whistle, drum, and reed violin” (2000) featuring the amazing singer Katalin Károlyi; violist Kim Kashkashian, cellist Steven Isserlis, pianist Vikingur Ólafsson, and composer-pianist Nicolas Namoradze in a more solemn program of memorial repertoire; the French barrel organ virtuoso Pierre Charial’s performance of Ligeti’s ‘Continuum;” and the two absurdist scores “Aventures” and “Nouvelle Aventures” wherein three singers (Defries, Anna Molnár, and Harald Hieronymous Hein) sing through giant megaphones alongside the UMZE Ensemble led by Gergely Vajda.
Other unforgettable moments featured Ligeti’s remarkable harpsichord pieces performed by Flóra Fábri; his classic 1962 “Poéme Symphonique” for 100 metronomes; the genre-bending ten-piece suite for woodwind quintet with spoken quotes from “Alice in Wonderland;” pianist Péter Kiss’ lightning-speed performance of G. F. Haas’ “Hommage à György Ligeti” on two pianos simultaneously; and a delightful free-improvisation evening with Lukas Ligeti’s electronics and percussion, György Kurtág Jr.’s electronics, cimbalom virtuoso Miklós Lukács, Kornél Fekete-Kovács on trumpet and percussion, and trombonist László Gőz.
Thanks to Gőz, who is also the proprietor of BMC, an active custodian of Hungarian music and musicians, and an energetic exponent of new works, the week was a major miracle for the city of Budapest. The Ligeti project took more than a year of careful coordination, given the ages of some of the most important guests. But the bigger picture is that Ligeti is no ‘outsider,’ but a major insider who could never be overlooked.
Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a specialist in contemporary piano music and both a friend and performer of Ligeti’s works for two decades, sums up the composer’s essence: “It looks and sounds like no other music. He was too creative to fold into a system.” Aimard will participate in the 2023 Salzburg Festival with a special series of performances of Ligeti’s works in late July.
More European venues will continue to celebrate Ligeti’s legacy in 2023.