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6

2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

John Kelman By

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But Ligeti's compositions went far beyond these more well-known pieces, ranging from early works informed by Béla Bartók to string quartets and various chamber concerti , like "Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe" that explored a very close connecting point between the two instruments. His music could be beautiful but it could be disturbing as well, and ultimately influenced generations of composers that followed, including Norwegian guitarist/composer Terje Rypdal; but if there is one piece that sticks out in his discography, it's Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti's "anti-anti-opera" that was commissioned in 1964 but not completed until 1977. A clear piece of absurdist theatre, its presentation at Oslo's opulent Opera House was on not just a grand scale, but a massive one.



As the lights dimmed, a screen came down and a film presented a woman entering her apartment, undressing and eating, only to begin choking on her food and, as her panicked face moved forward and took up the entire screen, the screen rose to reveal a massive set piece of the woman—naked, on her knees, held up by her arms with her breasts resting on the ground. Thus began a story that, filled with sexual acts and innuendo and explicit language (what other opera uses lines like, "Oh God, we're all fucked!"?), was apocalyptic in nature—Nekrotzar (the Grand Macabre) proclaiming, in the first of four acts, that he will destroy the world with the help of a comet. As the androgynous Amanda and Amando looked for a spot to make love in private, ultimately doing so in an empty grave, the protagonist Piet the Pot headed for the capital of the mythical Brueghelland, Le Grand Macabre's locale.

Combining fascism and baser human behaviors, the story progressed to an anti-climax where, having fallen into a drunken stupor and awaking, only to find that he has not, in fact, destroyed the world, Nektrotzar ultimately disappears, leaving the rest of the cast to sing the story's moral, which is that death is inevitable but, until then, life should be lived for the moment.

Beyond the massive scale of the central piece, and its various devices, it was also the focal point for projections that turned it into a skeletal figure, and also a reflection of Nekotzar's intended conflagration. Le Grand Macabre represented the first premiere from relative newcomer, Opera director Per Boye Hansen, having been in the position for over a year but, given how far in advance such programs are planned, having to first complete the preexisting schedule before beginning to place his own stamp on the Opera. Hansen couldn't have chosen a more demanding production. The massive set piece ultimately revealed, as it turned around at various points, numerous entry/exit points for the actors—some coming out of body parts like nipples and anuses, others coming down from the sky on invisible harnesses. The music was, in many ways, a confluence of Ligeti's entire career, demanding much from the singers who had to deliver oftentimes oblique melodies while engaging in some challenging physical moves.



It's hard to know whether or not Le Grand Macabre was something to actually like; but in its scope and scale, it was certainly something well worth experiencing.

September 11: KORK: Wallumrød/Lucier

When Norway's Christian Wallumrød premiered his first work for orchestra, When celebrities dream, in Bologna in 2012—a collaboration with the Italian city's Angelica Festival—there were some challenges. Good news, then, that Ultima provided Wallumrød—best known as leader of the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble that, over the past decade, has released a series of austere ECM recordings increasingly rooted in through-composition, combinging Baroque concerns with more contemporary classical constructs, most recently on the superb Outstairs (2013)— the chance to represent his piece, updated and re-titled When celebrities dream of casual sleep (second try), in a program along with Alvin Lucier's Exploration of the House. Who knew that the conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Jonathan Stockhammer, would take such an unorthodox approach to performing the two pieces. Explaining, in his introduction to the audience, that some of the questions he hoped to address were "how music comes into us" and "how we perceive it," Stockhammer then announced that the pieces would not be clearly delineated from one-another, and with a quick "Good luck!" the performance began.

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