Beyond Control: Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

Sometimes you witness a performance that is so incredible, so out-of-the-ordinary that it sticks with you and will just not leave you alone. That’s just what happened a few days ago when I attended a performance of György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Programmed as the conclusion to Augustin Hadelich‘s recital at the Aspen Music Festival—a forward-looking program of pieces by Francisco Coll, Stephen Hartke, and Tōru Takemitsu—Ligeti’s concerto is a wildly virtuosic workout for the soloist and presents almost every technique from the string player’s bag of tricks. The accompanying chamber orchestra (in which four of the players double on ocarinas!) is also no mere supporting role; many of the players’ parts are tremendously challenging to execute.

Sound-wise, the Violin Concerto is a far cry from Ligeti’s “sound mass” compositions of the 1960s, such as Atmosphères and Lux aterna—both made famous (or infamous?) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ligeti had begun to hone a style that reconciled avant-garde elements with the eclecticism of postmodernism. His Violin Concerto (composed, premiered, and revised between 1989 and 1993) is written with this sensibility in mind, embracing everything from medieval music to Classical forms, from the virtuosic Caprices of Paganini to folk music. This creates a work that’s a sort of a stylistic “grab bag”—one that is not fully tonal and traditional, but not fully avant-garde.

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, I thought so too going into the concert. I was already familiar with Ligeti’s music and this piece from YouTube videos and performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. But nothing would prepare me for hearing it live. Continue reading “Beyond Control: Ligeti’s Violin Concerto”

The Mysterious Case of Lilian Elkington

History, especially music history, can be weird. Sometimes a composer who is immensely popular during their lifetime can get swept under the metaphorical rug after their death, becoming nothing less than a footnote or being forgotten altogether. Others can experience more unfortunate circumstances – they can die young, their music can be lost, or their life situation can prevent them from gaining their well-deserved exposure.

Lilian Elkington in the 1920s
British composer Lilian Elkington (1900-1969)

One composer that remains on the fringes of history is the twentieth-century British composer Lilian Elkington. Born in 1900 in Birmingham, England, she studied composition at the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music and frequently performed as a concert pianist. Sadly, once Elkington married, she gave up composition to devote herself to being a mother and wife (as was the reality of many female composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Perhaps even more tragic was that her entire compositional output was “disposed of” once her husband remarried after her death in 1969. (It is unknown whether this was by accident or on purpose.)

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Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

1899
Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

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