If you entertain the widespread though erroneous popular opinion that music involves "some nice, easy-to-croon melodies, with accompaniment", you are advised to stay away from the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s modern music concert. Music is a much broader notion or form of expression than that, with sounds of various pitches, length and character. Music does indeed include "nice melodies that are easy to croon" as well, but the universe of music is infinitely rich. Because it can convey a plethora of emotions and thoughts, even chaos or uncertainty. Music is a peculiar language. And at least as diverse as "verbal" language.
If, however, you are interested in this diversity and infinite richness, you should not miss the next modern music evening of the BFO. But only if you are really free of the “sweet melody” type prejudices, have an open mind and want to see “what music can do”. I feel I kept an open mind on entering the concert hall on 20 September, to hear BFO play modern music, and yet, I have to admit that there were some things that still took me by surprise.
The first piece on the program was Octet by Péter Eötvös. (As the title suggests, it is played by eight musicians, eight winds: a flute, a clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets and 2 trombones.) The composition is made up of 1-2 minute blocks. I was not able to identify the “logic” in the sequence of the mini-movements – perhaps due to my lack of preparation – but each and every one had something unexpected to offer. The composer seems to have been competing with himself to find numerous unorthodox blowing techniques and other “tricks” to make an instrument produce a variety of unique sounds. Each mini-movement is a series of musical tricks, ideas, gags and sound-experiments. The performance demonstrated the fact that music can be something completely different from a “sweet melody that is easy to croon”. Furthermore, the performance was rather demanding physically as well as in terms of concentration for both the musicians and the conductor. With a tiny but telling gesture the conductor (Zoltán Rácz, the founder and leader of the now world-famous Amadinda Percussion Group) rolled up his sleeves before raising his baton.
The second piece, Double Sextet by Steve Reich, was a genuine delicacy, an exhilarating experience. It was performed by two sextets with identical compositions, in line with the title: a flute, a clarinet, a violin, a cello, a piano and a vibraphone. (By chance, the titles of the first two pieces indicated the compositions of the ensembles playing them. I do not think that this was a selection criterion though.) Double Sextet has been performed (by others) in a different manner as well: half of the parts taped by the sextet and the other half played by them live in parallel with the recording. This time though, we had two sextets on stage, playing both “halves” live.
The fast movements (nos. 1 and 3) are like a tempestuous danse macabre (dancing someone to death – see the ballads of “the girl danced to death”!). The pianos and the vibraphones give (give? drive!) the rhythm with an astonishing whirl, whereas the 2 winds and 2 strings play surprisingly long sounds, almost creating a “croonable” melody. Only those who have already been to Balkan dance houses and experienced the sweeping pulsation of Southeast-European (or Romanian) folk music, the uneven time signatures and their winding-up effect can imagine the enormous powers of this Reich composition. (Shamanic drumming or occasionally jazz can be another source of such ecstatic pulsation.) In addition, the composer plays “tricks” on us by unexpectedly shifting stresses sometimes. Let’s say that bars in 7/8 follow each other for some time, and we can anticipate the stresses. When this happens, you simply and happily immerse yourself in the music and “beat” the rhythm to yourself (or having forgotten about the outer world, you might even tap it with your feet), and then comes the deception when the composer shifts the stress by inserting a bar in an even time signature for example. I remember being a bit annoyed because of not being able to anticipate stresses due to these little tricks of the composer, but as time passed, I let it go and with pleasant reluctance started to rely on the composer thinking: “just give in and let the music flow over me.”
The central movement (no. 2) was fully in contrast with the two fast movements. No ecstatic pulsation, but a slow, dignified pounding instead. It didn’t wind you up, it relaxed you with its soothing sounds. Sweet melodies in this movement were appealing even for the most conservative ears.
The intense concentration and the precision of the orchestra were absolutely fascinating. Not even one of the million sounds could come at the wrong time, as that would immediately have destroyed the whole musical “architecture”. As a sign of concentration, one of the cellists often tapped the rhythm with his feet so as not to get the difficult rhythm patterns wrong, which brought a smile of compassion to my face. And hats off to the conductor as well for the flawless performance!
The last piece was Ligeti’s piano concerto (played by Zoltán Fejérvári). The composer worked a lot on this composition, after the first drafts it took him six years to compose the first three movements of the concerto. However, he did not consider it complete, so he added two more movements in two more years. This is how the concerto became a 5-movement piece. Interestingly, the variety of rhythm patterns and the pulsation of uneven time signatures in the first movement “rhymed” with the Reich composition. The music reflects the trials and tribulations of its genesis. It is full of exciting whirls, twists, quests and unexpected musical “frights”. The movements develop through a succession of tense and lax components. The piano is sometimes the virtuoso leader of the orchestra, other times it “disappears” and plays as one of them. Occasionally the listener has the impression that what Ligeti composed is not a genuine piano concerto. At the same time, the composer’s way of making use of the entire tonal range of the piano from the deep, growling sounds to the sharp, metallic sounds of the highest pitch is impressive. Ligeti’s music is diverse, sometimes full of excitement, sometimes quietly humming, agitated then calming down.
Don’t think I’ve been speaking against “sweet, easy-to-croon melodies”. Far from it, as a Mozart overture or the haunting melody of a Schubert aria are also peaks in the world of music. But – and this is what I wish to emphasise – there are other peaks too. Varietas delectat or long live diversity!