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Weekend Reviews | Music

'Around Ligeti' Begins With a Jolt

April 20, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Esa-Pekka Salonen comes from a culture with a passion for shocking the system. Finns like nothing better than to bake in a sauna until consciousness reaches the point just short of utter torpor, then run outside lickety-split and jump into an ice-cold lake. The setting is invariably magnificent and the enlivening jolt the plunge causes, the sense of exhilaration and heightened awareness, is indescribable.

And that, in a sense, is how Salonen began the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Around Ligeti" Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The festival celebrates next month's 75th birthday of the Hungarian composer by highlighting his music over the next five weeks, and it would have been no problem for Salonen to ease into this music. Gyorgy Ligeti's music ranges widely from the upbeat folk music-inspired works of the late 1940s and early '50s to his avant-garde music of clusters and wild theatrics of the late '50s and '60s to his more eclectic style of the '70s. His recent works are more classically oriented and more directly accessible.

Salonen, however, fearlessly dove right in with the Requiem, completed in 1965. Here is a perfect example of the European avant-garde that has been so under attack lately for having supposedly destroyed the public's faith in modern music. It has no melody. Its harmonies are dissonant and harsh. The vocal soloists leap and shriek. Symphony audiences don't want adventure, we are told. They come for the sauna, not the lake.

But given the standing ovation and repeated curtain calls following the half-hour Requiem, Salonen has clearly proven conventional wisdom wrong. This is strange, exciting, compelling and deeply disturbing music, and Salonen--with the vital assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, soprano Sibylle Ehlert and mezzo Elizabeth Bishop--made it vivid. Ligeti, who lived through both Nazi and Soviet persecution in Hungary before fleeing to the West in 1958, has, by obvious necessity, cultivated a strong sense of the grotesque, of the absurdity of our lives lived in the face of death but never believing in it.

The Requiem is absurd music and profound music. It begins with an Introitus black as night, deep basses intoning thick chords reminiscent of the chanting of Buddhist monks. A riveting Kyrie is made from dozens of canons in chorus and orchestra, so close and thick, the resulting sound is one of spiritual glow. The Dies Irae is, for Ligeti, a Grand Guignol day of wrath, a mad hellscape. He ends then, suddenly, with a floating Lacrimosa. For Ligeti, there is no resolution to death. This is the requiem mass by a Jewish composer, one not so much about an afterlife as about life in the second half of the 20th century.

"Around" Ligeti means mostly Haydn in Philharmonic-speak. Salonen's rationale is that the composers both display an unfettered spirit tied to a superlative technique. For this program it is Haydn's Symphony No. 49 ("La Passione"), one of his darker symphonies and a fitting companion to the Ligeti Requiem. Prior, Salonen began with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, offered in period style of one player to part, in this case nine solo strings (the three violinists and three violists standing on either side of the three seated cellists) and continuo (bass and harpsichord). The playing in both cases was unfussy and incisive, with fast movements fast enough to thrill. Grant Gershon was the evening's important man behind the scene. He was, unfortunately, nearly inaudible as harpsichordist in Bach and Haydn. However, he was responsible for the Requiem's superb choral preparation.

*

Also helping make "Around Ligeti" such an important moment in American orchestral life are the eloquent and illuminating program notes that the Philharmonic commissioned from Paul Griffiths and Guy Vivien's beautiful photographs of the composer in the Grand Hall.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic repeats Ligeti's Requiem on Wednesday night at 7:30, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $8--$63. (213) 850-2000.

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