Conductor John Alexander plans to trace the evolution of a national musical style in a "Hungarian Evening," to be presented by the 105-member Pacific Chorale tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
"I picked three works which are seldom performed and which are all different in nature," Alexander said. "But each one deserves a performance and shows what Hungary has to offer the world."
Alexander will conduct the Pacific Chorale and the Pacific Symphony in Liszt's Missa Solemnis (the "Gran" festival Mass), Kodaly's "Te Deum of Buda Castle" and Gyorgy Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna." Soloists will be soprano Su Harmon, mezzo-soprano Janet Smith, tenor Paul Harms and bass-baritone Dennis Houser.
Alexander picked Liszt partly to commemorate the centennial of the composer's death and partly to show that Liszt "established the beginning of a national style."
"Liszt wrote that his happiest memories were hearing Hungarian folk music as a child and that his music was based on the tunes of his childhood," Alexander said. "Of course, he was musically trained in Western Europe, so his work isn't instinctively Hungarian like Kodaly and Ligeti's.
"But Liszt is the most famous Hungarian of all Hungarians and so is representative of that culture."
Liszt wrote his Mass in 1855 for the consecration of a cathedral in Gran (now Esztergom). The work reflects the influences of Berlioz, Wagner and other Romantic composers and typifies Liszt's ambitious dream of combining theatrical and liturgical music on the grandest of scales.
"It's a huge work, 50 minutes long," Alexander said. "Its structure is monumental and cyclical. The notation looks like Palestrina and other earlier composers, but the sound is Wagner and the melodies of Italian opera.
"It also combines all the drama of Liszt's life and his realization of the religious aspects of his life," Alexander added. "It reflects both facets of a personality torn between true pious feelings and the love of women and play."
Also inspired by an important national celebration, Zoltan Kodaly wrote his "Te Deum of Buda Castle" in 1936 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the recapture of Buda from the Turks.
"Of all choral compositions from Hungary, this is the most instinctively Hungarian," Alexander said. "It represents the essence of Hungarian folk art, but there is no quoting."
Kodaly devoted decades of his life to collecting folk materials in order to establish the basis of a new Hungarian art music--a project he shared with fellow Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
"The work is basically very large, fast-moving and very tightly structured. It uses older style fugues but in a Hungarian tonal and rhythmic language."
Audiences that might otherwise shy away from contemporary music may have already heard some of Ligeti's music, Alexander pointed out.
"The Kyrie from his Requiem was used at the end of the film '2001: A Space Odyssey' and it was brought back at the beginning of '2010,' " Alexander said.
"They used it because Ligeti creates such ethereal effects and the effect of space."
Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna," composed in 1966, reflects the composer's interest in making textures rather than melody or rhythm the predominant element in music, according to Alexander.
"The music weaves very beautiful textures by clustering precise sounds rather than following a melody even though the work is built entirely upon strict canons.
"But the whole idea is of eternal light shining upon a departed one, and Ligeti is so pictorial in the way he describes light tonally coming out of the heavens and shining on what is below. The effect of these sonorities is tremendous."
Like Kodaly, Ligeti, who was born in 1923, devoted much effort to recording Hungarian folk music, but unfortunately he had no choice in the matter.
"As the son of Hungarian Jews, Ligeti couldn't get any of his works published or performed while the Nazis were in control," Alexander said. "It was only through Kodaly's insistence--so great was Kodaly's prestige then--that Ligeti was even able to continue teaching during those years.
"Later, after the Communists came to power, his ideas were considered too avant-garde, so again all he was permitted to publish were folk song arrangements. Here was one of the most creative people in the 20th Century, and he was not allowed to write music," Alexander said.
Ligeti left Hungary after the October 1956 Uprising and settled in West Berlin whereupon his works became more generally known.
"The whole concert shows how all these Hungarian influences which began with Liszt came back later and were transformed over a 100-year period," Alexander concluded. "It seems appropriate to do such a survey in the anniversary year of Liszt's death."
(Tonight's concert will be held at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. Saturday the Chorale will repeat the program at Santa Ana High School Auditorium.)