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On a high note with composer Peter Eötvös

This week, Hungarian artistEötvös' opera 'Angels in America' makes its L.A. debut, followed by the world premiere of his new concerto, 'DoReMi,' for violinist Midori.

January 12, 2013|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • Peter Eotvos
Peter Eotvos (Priska Ketterer, Priska…)

The music of Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös isn't "easy" in any conventional sense. A typical Eötvös piece sets the listener adrift through swaths of treacherous soundscapes and shimmering dissonance, usually without the aid of melody.

Though often challenging, his music is also playful in an intellectual way — a childlike romp through a music-theory sand box. This is evident in the title of his new concerto "DoReMi," which was written for the violinist Midori and will have its world premiere Friday in a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece is named after the first three notes of the C-major scale, usually the first notes that children learn to play. It is also a play on the soloist's name.

"It's not difficult to understand why I chose this title," the 69-year-old composer said in a recent interview, conducted in French, via Skype from his home in Budapest.

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Eötvös said he wrote the concerto, which has three movements, as a "philosophical" exploration of the three notes. "The re is in between the do and mi, and it wants to free itself in a way. So each note became defined by its relationship with the others," he said.

On Tuesday, the composer will present the L.A. premiere of his opera "Angels in America," based on Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a group of New Yorkers whose lives are affected by AIDS. The English-language opera debuted in Paris in 2004. The production from the L.A. Phil's New Music Group will be semi-staged at Disney Hall and directed by David Gately.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado will lead performances of "Angels" and the concerto — the pairing is being billed by the orchestra as a series titled "Focus on Peter Eötvös."

Eötvös said he had only read Kushner's epic play and had never seen a production when he decided to create the opera with his wife, Mari, who wrote the libretto. The landmark play runs seven hours spread over two evenings. Eötvös described the three-hour opera as a "musical reduction of the play's most important scenes."

Kushner said in a separate phone interview that he agreed to let Eötvös tackle his play because he had enjoyed the composer's 1996 operatic adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters."

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"Peter had originally asked me if I wanted to write the libretto and I said no. I knew I wasn't able to condense the play into something that was opera-length," said Kushner, who is up for multiple movie awards for his screenplay for "Lincoln." The writer said he likes the opera but continues to wonder whether viewers who aren't familiar with the original play "will be able to grasp" the plot. He said he might see "Angels" at Disney Hall.

Eötvös began his music career writing incidental music for theatrical productions. "I was good at improvisation on the piano," he recalled. "When actors rehearsed, people would ask me to play something that would work for a scene. And I was able to do that." He also has written several movie scores, including music for the first feature film of Istvan Szabó, 1965's "Age of Illusions."

The composer, who has collaborated with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, is widely considered to be an innovative writer, but he said he remains old-fashioned in one important respect.

"I still compose with a pencil, and I use an eraser quite often," he said. "When I've written on the computer, I don't hear the music. It's strange for me. What's important is the physical contact when I write a note — I hear it right away in my head."


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