Orchestra 2001 takes on Ligeti, Kim, Menotti, and Prado

Friday night brought Orchestra 2001 to Lang Concert Hall with its usual eclectic variety of 20th and 21st century repertory, here an exceptionally rewarding program. The inclusion of Gyorgy Ligeti’s monumentally difficult Violin Concerto in the program was a daring move that turned out to be a triumph for the orchestra, conductor James Freeman, and soloist Jennifer Koh.

In the concert’s first half, soprano Jody Karin Applebaum sang works of Earl Kim, Gian Carlo Menotti, and a world premiere by Luis Prado on the first half of the program. All were scored for voice and a string quartet (plus a harp in the Menotti and a piano in the Prado).

“Three Poems in French,” a 1989 work by the Korean-American composer Earl Kim (1920-1998) os a beautiful, lyrical setting of poems by Baudelaire and Verlaine. Applebaum sang with exemplary French diction but the performance seemed more precise than expressive or individualized, and her voice has a certain nasality and shrill quality. “Nocturne,” a 1982 work by the recently deceased Gian Carlo Menotti, shared these qualities. Again, the passion of the words and music seemed muted by the performance.

“Two Poems of Joan Hutton Landis,” by the Puerto Rico-born Curtis graduate Luis Prado, was an exciting premiere. Prado’s language is unabashedly tonal and lyrical, even more so than Kim or Menotti. The first movement, “Sadness (The Rainforest)” seemed a somewhat too-beautiful setting of a tempestuous poem, but the writing was exquisite all the same. The second movement, “Parceque,” was longer, a dramatic narrative marked by creative orchestration and rhythms, whose tension was occasionally broken by some too-long instrumental interludes. Applebaum’s singing seemed more engaged. The composer and poet took a bow.

The second half of the concert was taken up entirely by a very different piece: the 1992 violin concerto of Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti, a Hungarian composer who died last summer, is known for the immense complexity of his scores and his creative use of instruments. Jennifer Koh played the ridiculously demanding solo part with stunning precision and a wonderfully rich tone (in the few places she was not at the very top of her instrument’s range).

The score requires a great deal from the orchestra as well, such as the four woodwind players who were required to double on the ocarina and the percussionists playing slide whistles. Several of the strings use non-standard tuning. The performance was occasionally tenuously coordinated (most obviously at the very beginning), but proved captivating nonetheless. Though an arch-modernist who conjures some very strange sounds including micro-intervals, Ligeti’s music is clearly organized and surprisingly accessible, particularly when performed by a player of Koh’s expressivity. The audience responded with fittingly raucous enthusiasm.

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