Gyorgy vs. Big Ben

Roethlisberger, that is. Sunday night the Trattoria dell'Arte, across Seventh Avenue from Carnegie Hall, was empty. Zankel Hall wasn't full, even for Gyorgy Kurtag's New York debut as a performer. Later that night, the streets were empty and cabs impossible to come by.

Sunday night I forswore the Super Bowl in favor of Georgy and his wife Marta Kurtag playing piano solo and four-hands in music of Bartok, Bach and Kurtag. I felt on the far end of a very wide spectrum. Over there were 100 million Americans and millions more worldwide gripped by what seems to have been a great game, judging the new commercials, scarfing wings and chips and beer, in our annual great communal macho ritual.

In Zankel, there were the sweetly aged Gyorgy and Marta, crammed onto a piano bench not quite long enough for their bottoms. They played a curiously thick and shiny upright piano, on either side of which were futuristic looking Bose speakers, two pairs each consisting of a short and boxy subwoofer (?) and a tall skinny round tower. A bald head huddled behind the piano, emerging uncredited with its body attached to take a bow at the end.

Head and body turned out to belong to their son, also named Gyorgy, who used to work at IRCAM and who was twiddling with the volume levels, reportedly note by note. The piano had the mute pedal permanently depressed, yet the sound was modestly amplified. The result turned what was already hushed, contemplative, monastic into something strangely assertive yet cottony in sound. A pianistic clavichord, I thought at the time.

The playing and the music were slow, measured. The placid tempos and dogged articulation of the notes almost sounded amateurish at first, but quickly cast their spell. In his later years Kurtag deals in fragments, self-contained snippets, short and intense and quirky, often in homage to others. Here the music came from his Jatekok (Games), an ongoing project dating from 1973 and now up to eight books of music.

Before the intermission came half an hour of solo Kurtag violin music, the Hipartita (2004), intensely dispatched by Hiromi Kikuchi, a longtime Kurtag exponent. But the real business of the night was the Kurtags at their upright. It was, at the time and in retrospect, an extraordinary musical experience -- miles from the norm in present-day classical concert-going in New York, and God knows miles from the roaring excitement of a stadium in Tampa and Bruce at halftime. The Zankel audience responded with a standing, roaring ovation of its own, and won three Bach encores in reward.  

February 4, 2009 10:26 PM |


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