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Ligeti's It

Mobtown Modern begins an ambitious new season with a tribute to a late 20th century giant

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Pianist Jenny Lin comes to Ligetifest to perform a selection of the composer’s etudes and musica ricercata.


Mobtown Modern’s LigetiFest

Sept. 14 at the University of Baltimore Student Center Theater.

For more information, visit mobtownmodern.com

Simply put, LigetiFest is the perfect way to begin the new season of Mobtown Modern. Not only does the one-night event showcase an uncategorizable variety of modern solo, chamber, vocal, and mechanical music, it also shows off the increasing ambition and reach of the Contemporary Museum’s concert series, now entering its fourth year of championing works by contemporary composers. And, of course, LigetiFest focuses welcome attention on the late György Ligeti (1923-2006), one of the greatest composers of the second half of the 20th century, not to mention the modernist composer whose work the most people have heard, whether they know it or not.

The first three seasons of Mobtown Modern stood out on the local contemporary music landscape in part because of series curator Brian Sacawa’s reliance on themed programs and new-music scores so new that the proverbial ink was still drying (“The New Now,” Feature, March 31). As planning for a fourth season began, Sacawa says he was “interested in moving in the direction of painting in broader strokes.” He wanted fewer survey-like evenings and more digging deeper. “One of the things I try to think about is, Who are the great composers who have not been performed [much] in Baltimore?” he says. “Also, I’m a huge Ligeti fan and want to hear his music performed more.”

If any modern composer encourages digging deeper, it’s Ligeti. A Hungarian steeped in the same folkloric influences as countrymen Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, he was a part of the mid-20th-century revolution in which young composers embraced electronics, unconventional notation, and music that favored process over expression. “Ligeti hung out with those guys, but he rejected a lot of those things,” Sacawa says. He made process-oriented music—the 1962 Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes is on the LigetiFest bill—but he also wrote concertos, string quartets, choral music, even an opera. They often didn’t sound much like those traditional forms; Ligeti specialized in eerie harmonies and extended techniques that produced unusual instrumental tones. Certain pieces are so otherworldly that director Stanley Kubrick famously used Ligeti’s music to telegraph alien intelligence and yawning dread in his 2001: A Space Odyssey (one such piece, the choral Lux Aeterna from 1966, is part of LigetiFest).

Pianist Jenny Lin says she first heard Ligeti’s music via 2001 and later became engrossed in his books of Etudes, which she performs selections from at LigetiFest. She calls him “a master of acoustical illusions.”

Answering questions by e-mail from New York, Lin recalls a certain program of Ligeti’s orchestral music as “one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended. There were sounds that I have never heard before—the textures, the colors, the intensity. For example, there were moments I thought electronics were used . . . but they were all sounds made by acoustic instruments.”

Some of the above probably makes Ligeti’s music sound like the foreboding, forbidding abstractions of much mid-century composition, but it isn’t that simple. “Unlike many of Ligeti’s modernist counterparts, there’s a sense of lightness, fun, and humor in much of his music,” Sacawa says. “There’s a playfulness to it, there’s a dance quality.”

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violist Karin Brown says that dance quality—what she calls Ligeti’s “funky rhythms” —will be key to a successful performance of his Sonata for Solo Viola for LigetiFest. She hadn’t played it before, and hadn’t performed with Mobtown Modern, but as a fan of new music, she jumped at the chance.

“Naively I said ‘yes’ right away, and then I looked at the music and was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy,’” she says. The score calls for incremental pitches such as quarter tones, difficult string harmonics, and a first movement played entirely on the instrument’s lowest-pitched C string, all adding up to a supreme challenge for the bowing arm, fingers, and brain. “I would compare it to Paganini for the viola,” Brown says. “That’s probably why lots of people don’t play it, but I’m always game for a challenge and I learn really quickly, which is good, because I’ve gotta learn this thing in two weeks.”

Brown’s presence on the LigetiFest bill is informal, but the recent announcement of the full Mobtown Modern 2010-2011 season (available at mobtownmodern.com) brought with it the news that the BSO had officially agreed to partner with the series for a pair of concerts. BSO musicians will take the stage with Mobtown regulars for performances of Philip Glass’ Glassworks in January and Osvaldo Golijov’s multiculti song cycle Ayre next June. “Thrilled is kind of an understatement,” Sacawa says. “I’m super excited about the season.”

The unprecedented collaboration arose when Sacawa, a classically trained saxophonist, played as a guest with the orchestra for its February performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He asked to meet with BSO Music Director Marin Alsop and pitched a collaboration that found receptive ears.

“New music and edgy stuff is a big interest of mine,” Alsop says, “and I think it’s a big interest of the BSO—perhaps not in the very recent past, but with [former music director David] Zinman. . . . It’s a new age for the BSO and everyone’s interested in being a vital part of the community and developing as many partnerships as possible across all kinds of divides.

“I hate when people say this,” she adds with a small laugh, “but it’s a real ‘win-win.’”

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