Unexpected Echoes of Hungary: A Chat With Esa-Pekka Salonen

Classic Arts Features   Unexpected Echoes of Hungary: A Chat With Esa-Pekka Salonen
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen speaks with James M. Keller about the qualities that connect and separate the three composers whose music is being performed in the New York Philaharmonic's Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival.


Joseph Haydn, B_la Bart‹k, Gy‹rgy Ligeti: masters all, but at first glance they seem a surprising trio, an assemblage whose works might cohabit a concert program more by chance than by design. Yet, this month Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival juxtaposes ten works by these three composers over the course of three weeks, all led by guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The festival's four distinct programs, which are distributed among 11 concerts, promise to underscore commonalities displayed by these diverse figures, beginning with the fact that they all worked in Hungary for significant spans of their careers, though during strikingly different eras.

"The combination of Haydn, Bart‹k, and Ligeti is unusual and perhaps unexpected," observes New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert. "I've always been interested by the combinations that are possible when you put together music of Bart‹k and Haydn, and I think that the dimension that Esa-Pekka Salonen brings to it by including Ligeti in the mix is brilliant and right on the money, because Ligeti is completely out of the tradition of Bart‹k."

Hungary is located in the heart of Central Europe, where political boundaries changed often, and outsiders may accordingly have only a vague awareness of the nation's history. It may be useful to recall that in the 18th century, when Haydn spent many years there, Hungary was under the control of the Hapsburg Emperors, who included "King of Hungary" among their various titles. Revolts in 1867 led to the establishment of the Austria- Hungary Monarchy (or Austro-Hungarian Empire), the second largest and third most populous country in Europe, an arrangement that gave those two nations some autonomy while still linking them under unified political rule. Bart‹k was born there in 1881, and he traversed many of its ethnically diverse byways to document the region's folk music. At the end of World War I the Austria-Hungary Monarchy collapsed, and Hungary operated as a fragile kingdom for 26 years, and was occupied by Nazi Germany at the end of that span. That's when Bart‹k emigrated to America. He did not live to watch his nation's transition to Soviet domination, but his young compatriot Ligeti did, after which Ligeti fled to Western Europe in the mass Hungarian exodus of 1956 and lived until 2006, long enough to see the modern Hungarian Republic established in 1990 and flourish in the ensuing years.

All of this was accompanied by a rich musical scene, which the Hungarian Echoes festival samples : selectively. "We are doing a festival in three weeks, so it needs a focus," says Mr. Salonen. "The composers we chose are indeed special, in the sense that each one of them pushes the envelope. These three really pushed the idea of symphonic music in directions previously unknown : in technical aspects, in expression, in instrumental virtuosity. They represent the most radical, inventive musical thinking of their times."

Haydn is represented by his much-loved but little-played Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8, nicknamed Morning, Noon, and Evening, respectively, which he wrote in 1761, shortly after joining the musical staff of the Esterhšzy Princes, who held sway over expanses of the Habsburg empire, including a large portion of Hungary. "This music is as radical as anything Bart‹k or Ligeti ever wrote," Mr. Salonen insists. "We're just talking about a different century, but Haydn's innovation, as opposed to the norm of his day, is enormous." Do we hear explicitly Hungarian sounds in these pieces? Maybe a hint, the conductor thinks: "The minuets have a character that is different from most of the 'dance-like' minuets of that time and before. They have a rustic comedy to them. While they don't have direct quotations from folk music, they do have a new kind of spirit, incorporating less 'refined,' more popular elements in symphonic textures."

With Bart‹k we encounter a composer who was deeply devoted to the sounds of Hungary, which he considered central to the cultural well-being of his nation. In a 1903 letter to his family, he wrote: "For my own part, all my life, in every sphere, always and in every way, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian people." Esa- Pekka Salonen is passionate about Bart‹k and argues that the composer's importance in the canon of 20th-century music has not yet been fully acknowledged. But things are going in the right direction. "Now we are witnessing the star of Bart‹k rising everywhere," he says. "No longer do we listen to his music as refined folklore; we listen to it as powerful, expressive, emotional music that works on many levels, taking us to the darkest place and also revealing raucous joy." Mr. Salonen is conducting works that reveal different aspects of Bart‹k's musical character: the raw ebullience of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite, the melding of styles in the First Piano Concerto, the textural precision of the Concerto for Orchestra, and the symbolist mystery of the opera Bluebeard's Castle.

As a conductor, Mr. Salonen often worked with Ligeti in the 1980s and '90s, and he prepared all three of that composer's works included in these programs under the composer's watchful eye. "These pieces share an interesting journey," the conductor observes. "Concert Romê¢nesc, from 1951, shows a young Ligeti starting where Bart‹k left Hungarian music, taking the folk-music material very far into a symphonic genre. Clocks and Clouds, from the 1970s, is a mature Ligeti piece; this is where he got the farthest away from any kind of folklore in his music. Then in the Piano Concerto, from the 1980s, Ligeti looks back toward his Hungarian roots. The Bart‹k element is absolutely palpable. When I prepared it with Ligeti, he worked with me on getting the orchestra to swing as if they were playing salsa, and he even did a little dance number in front of the orchestra : an unspeakable ballet that still gives me nightmares."


James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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