An acquaintance of mine – a fellow student-composer – years ago once had the fortune to have an extended conversation with György Ligeti. Upon learning my friend was an aspiring composer, Ligeti said: “So you want to be a composer? You’d better go to lots of parties!”
This anecdote comes to mind now when reflecting on the final concert of Juilliard’s Focus Festival. The Festival, which wrapped up last week, focused this year on Hungarian music after Bartók. Among the works on the final concert were György Kurtág’s Stele and György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.
My friends: the Violin Concerto is party music; Stele is not.
No surprise, of course, seeing as Kurtág has been a pretty reclusive fellow most of his life. Instead of going to lots of parties during his student year abroad in Paris, Kurtág copied out the whole of Webern at the BNF, held himself to an austere regiment of diet and exercise, and underwent psychoanalysis. Gay ole Paris, huh?
Ligeti was impressing years ago on my friend the importance of networking. And Ligeti’s music – in the Violin Concerto especially – is charismatic, entrancing, and ostentatiously brilliant. Even the straightforward parts often have the hint of someone behind them saying: “Look – I can be simple, too!”
Kurtág does not ask you to look. He offers something if you care to listen. And if you on your own volition take the time, you will find an extraordinary spirit. As such, he has always struck me as the more honest of the two composers, the more soulful.
But hang it all: the Ligeti Violin Concerto rocked the house, and, by comparison (dare I say it?), Stele sounded a little stiff. However the two works reflect on each other, each represents the best of its respective composer, and it was a deep pleasure to hear them both. Let’s hope Ligeti is partying on in some Funhouse in the sky, and that Kurtág’s access to the true and beautiful continues to bear fruit for years to come.
P.S. Juilliard’s Contemporary Music Guru, Joel Sachs, in the pic.