Plain Dealer: May 7, 2008

Only the most intrepid musicians face Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, a rich and challenging work that requires a soloist and colleagues of almost superhuman gifts. Meet a brave bunch of Ligeti champions: CityMusic Cleveland, conductor James Gaffigan and violinist Jennifer Koh.

The concerto is the focal point on the program, “Revolutionary Music,” these artists are performing throughout the week at various Northeast Ohio locations.

The opening concert Tuesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights introduced the concerto alongside works by Vivaldi, Ives and Beethoven, all of whom also were prone to radical creativity. But the Ligeti stood out on this occasion for its uncompromising ability to wed sonic and formal imagination with expressive depth.

The Hungarian composer (1923-2006) wrote the concerto in the early 1990s. Its five movements are packed with contrasting textures, moods and colors, some achieved through the use of ocarinas, recorders and strings tuned outside the normal system. Ligeti goes to emotional edges, embracing vehemence, anguish and rapture as he explores new terrain.

The piece gives the soloist virtually no opportunity to come up for air. Koh, an Oberlin College graduate who has developed an important international solo career, played with burning intensity and prodigious command of the instrument. She broke numerous bow hairs along the way as she brought charismatic focus to the Herculean demands. The chamber orchestra and Gaffigan appeared to surmount every Ligetian obstacle. The score unfolded with kaleidoscopic and rhythmic clarity, conveying the composer’s audacious sense of musical exploration. Don’t miss this bracing experience.

Gaffigan preceded Ligeti with Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in B minor, subtitled “At the Holy Grave,” whose opening emerges from a harmonic netherworld. The piece must have sounded shocking to audiences in the 18th century, and it still exerts a mournful fascination. The strings dug deeply to depict the dark atmosphere.

Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” continues to haunt us as the strings play prayerful lines, an offstage trumpet poses its inquisitive question about eternity and wind instruments contribute argumentative declamations. The performance would have been even more effective at a slightly slower pace, but the wonderment was there.

Gaffigan and company lightened things up considerably with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, an explosive achievement for a young composer on the verge of titanic things. Tempos and articulations were deftly judged. Gaffigan supplied equal degrees of muscle and lilt, and the orchestral response was sterling.

Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: drosenberg@plaind.com, 216-999-4269.

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