GYORGY KURTAG, winner of this year's $200,000 Grawemeyer Award for musical composition, has been called a Hungarian Webern. Like the Austrian 12-tone miniaturist, he prefers to work on a concentrated small scale. But he is also a bittersweet trickster with a tragicomic sensibility perhaps closer to Kafka and Beckett. His music is easy to listen to but seems to have levels of meaning just out of grasp.
Thanks to Leif Ove Andsnes, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is attending to Kurtag this week. The Norwegian pianist in residence with the orchestra paired Kurtag, who turns 80 in February, with the young French composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie for a Green Umbrella program with the Philharmonic's New Music Group at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night. Tonight and through the weekend, Andsnes and the Philharmonic will be playing Kurtag's short "... quasi un fantasia ..." for piano and orchestra.
Andsnes began Tuesday with nine solo selections from Kurtag's "Jatekok" (Games), a series that began as exercises for children but expanded into short musical diary entries. Some are less than 20 seconds. Many pay homage to other composers, ranging from Scarlatti to the contemporary avant-gardist Christian Wolff.
One that Andsnes chose, "Tumble Bunny," consists of broken scales and a few chords, but the effect is lighthearted fatalism. It lasts 30 seconds. Andsnes may be a little too levelheaded to bring out Kurtag's existential casualness, but he played exquisitely.
The other Kurtag pieces on the program were "Hommage a R. Sch." and "Grabstein fur Stephan" (Gravestone for Stephan). Both come from Kurtag's Opus 15 set, and each lasts about eight minutes, but they are of radically different scale, effect and intent. The first is a fracturing of Robert Schumann through Kurtag's strange lens, which means that when he hears Schumann, he thinks Kafka and he thinks Machaut, the venturesome 14th century French composer.
You never know where you are in these five movements (the first four less than a minute each, the last six minutes). But you can't miss the haunted landscape or the fact that Schumann has something to do with it. Andsnes here was joined by violist Dana Hansen and clarinetist Lorin Levee. The latter also hit a big bass drum -- once and very softly -- at the end.
"Grabstein," written in memory of the husband of a psychologist with whom Kurtag worked in Paris when he was a student, is also eight minutes. It asks for an extravagant chamber orchestra that includes a variety of keyboards, exotic percussion, four plastic horns and two whistles. Brass, winds and toys surround the audience. A somber, enthralling mood is interrupted by rude blasts. Death has a hearty laugh. Alexander Mickelthwate conducted superbly.
Dalbavie's contribution to the evening came with two substantial chamber works. He is another of Andsnes' enthusiasms -- the pianist will play the American premiere of his piano concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in January.
Like Kurtag, Dalbavie gets his ideas by going inside music technically. He toys with the physical attributes of sound, with spectrums and complicated rhythmic structures that require a computer to figure out. But his goal is color, marvelously flamboyant color.
A piece from last year, "Axiom," for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano, was a prime example of Dalbavie's flair. All but a mini piano concerto, given the Lisztian keyboard writing, it proved a grabber with its tumbling octaves that sped up and slowed down. This is music that you feel in your stomach and that you see as flashes of brilliant neon. Messiaen makes an appearance or two, all sugar and glory. Gloria Cheng was the pianist, and she was thrilling.
The other Dalbavie score, "Tactus," is older (1996), more formal, more restrained, more technical-sounding with its rhythmic formulas. A nonet, it was conducted with precision and verve by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The most interesting effect came in the middle, when the strings impatiently attempted to suspend time.
"Tactus" is tactile music of an engaging French intellectual who hadn't yet let himself go. "Axiom" is the engaging music of a French intellectual who has. But it's time he learned from Kurtag how to sex up his titles.