Perched as I was in a balcony seat, I easily could see the man in a house-right front row (pew, actually, this being Union College’s Memorial Chapel) dragging his overcoat up over his ears and, once that proved an ineffective sound barrier, clamping the fabric against his face with his hands. In his agony, he seemed to be approaching a fetal position, which isn’t a bad trick when you’re (probably) in your 80s. Oh, he was hating this piece.
It was György Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, written 30 years ago, marking (after a four-year gap), Ligeti’s return to composing and the beginning of a new style. Texturally dense, rhythmically startling, drawing from its players an array of unexpected sounds, the work offers really only one consistent characteristic: it’s not tonal. That’s not its point, it’s not often the point of anything Ligeti wrote, and you don’t come into this dancehall expecting to foxtrot to pretty tunes.
And here I must purge my evil soul and confess to you that I found perverse enjoyment in the others’ pain. I’ve long lamented the cultural close-mindedness that seems to dog our region, despite the pockets of enlightenment that lurks at college settings—and, indeed, the intermission chatter I heard behind me came from a professor and a couple of students who waxed ecstatically over Ligeti’s work.
So maybe I’m selling the audience short. Certainly the trio was an abrupt contrast to the Haydn String Quartet (Op. 55 No. 1) that opened the concert. Tune your ears to what a listener would expect when the piece premiered, in 1781, and you can enjoy the many ways in which Haydn messes with expectations.
The first movement gave plenty of work to first violinist Lily Francis, who allowed herself to sonically soar as a soloist ought. The development section has an amusing false ending, and by the end of the recapitulation, everyone was busy.
Which meant that you’d hardly expect the piece to go back to violin concerto mode for its second movement, but Francis was front and center again, exploring the melodic intricacies at which Haydn was no slouch. The joke in this movement is that it peaks as if introducing a cadenza—which then was played by the entire quartet. In the fourth and final movement, the hurry-up sense of the feisty themes was amusingly accentuated by trailing them off, as if breathlessly, to get back to a main theme all the more quickly. Joining Francis were violinist Itamar Zorman, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Paul Wiancko.
The final work on the program was Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A Major, Op. 18, with violinist Soovin Kim joining the quartet members and Francis switching to viola. It’s a standard four-movement work that’s almost Mendelssohnistic in its construction, skillfully written with inventiveness colored by a sense of inevitability, very much in the thrall of Schubert, and all of it sounding like a warm-up to the composer’s own Octet, Op. 20—although the octet was written a year or so earlier.
It has the unintentional charm of fashioning its slow movement around a theme that anticipates Tchaikovsky’s “Tonight We Love” theme, and its scherzo is one of those airy, characteristic romps that had the added charm of contrapuntal moments. But the best part was in the finale, when the players hit such aggressive passagework that they were forced into the land of fortissimo, rosin-grit a-buzz. Marlboro musicians are trained to play so beautifully that some performances lack an emotional center, and I felt that in most of the Mendelssohn—until the finish. They should take the advice that Shaw gave to Heifetz and play one wrong note every night before going to bed.
But then there was the Ligeti trio. Performed by pianist Matan Porat, violinist Kim and horn player Benjamin Jaber, it’s a difficult, difficult piece that called on all of their impressive resources.
The piece opens with a plangent chorale, with the horn wedging its mournful voice into the soundscape of double-stopped violin chords. The piano was treated as percussively as you can get away with, three- and four-chord bursts from it initially accenting the long lines of the others. Both violin and horn moderated their sound with mutes and harmonics, and violin pizzicato also proved effective, particularly alongside legato piano.
Bartókian harmonies in the first movement gave way to a similarly Bartókian rhythmic frenzy in the second, a vivacissimo that required oversized, multi-page parts for horn and fiddle, and a helpful page-turn by Jaber for both his part and Kim’s. The brief “alla marcia” that followed contrasted a threat of lyricism within a framework of more strident figures, while the concluding adagio brought back the feel of the first movement, but in a more subdued passacaglia that screamed in climax before subsiding into most gentle musical entropy. The long, long silence that followed was broken by one enthusiast’s, “Oooh, yeah!” Indeed. It was a thrilling performance of an important work.