Significant (and belated) U.S. premieres highlight Eötvös program with New World Symphony
Miami’s new-music faithful filled New World Center Saturday night, staying through the end of one of the New World Symphony’s most radical and challenging Sounds of the Times programs yet. “Modern Europe” brought two U.S. premieres to Miami Beach: Hungarian composer/conductor Peter Eötvös’ da capo for cimbalom and ensemble, and the long overdue Punkte from 1952 by Eötvös’ mentor, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A legend in European new music but lesser known in the US, Eötvös composes in the German and French “spectralist” style, using components of sound revealed by computers for developing musical structures. Not limiting himself to twelve notes, Eötvös instead explores the microtonal spaces between to create a vast musical universe. There are no soloists in Eötvös’s music, but the ensemble virtuosity makes each player essential.
Speaking through a German translator, Eötvös called da capo his newest but oldest work. At the request of the commissioner, Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation, Eötvös identified sketches by Mozart from their archives that he could translate into his own music.
Crotales signaled nine times, announcing the entrance of a Mozart fragment before, launching into Eötvös’ frenetic, colorful patterns. Playing the cimbalom—a Hungarian instrument similar to a large hammered dulcimer—Chester Englander reliably rendered Eötvös’ occasional melodic ideas. Oddly, Eötvös eschews the cimbalom’s dazzling polyphonic capabilities, only occasionally sustaining its haunting colors throughout the orchestra.
At times the Mozart fragment emerged recognizably, jolting the listener out of Eötvös’ sound world, and the extreme stylistic contrasts worked against a unified musical statement. Nonetheless, da capo is a brilliant, demanding work, and NWS gave it a nuanced premiere.
Eötvös’ Chinese Opera from 1986 is a pillar within his repertoire. Written for Pierre Boulez’s modernist Ensemble Intercontemporain, of which Eötvös was the first music director, Chinese Opera features two mirrored chamber orchestras and a third amplified ensemble including harps, tuba, and synthesizer.
Eötvös explained that the very loud Prelude reimagines the huge noise Chinese operas made announcing themselves to a new city. In the First Scene, annunciatory, motoric percussion echoed antiphonally across the stage, in a trajectory from noisy motion to lulling washes of sound. Exquisitely guided by Eötvös, the musicians clearly balanced and colored each motive within the multilayered texture.
In the Second Scene, stunning amplified percussion and tuba breath noise introduced perpetually falling lines and microtonal timbres in winds and strings, creating a placid atmosphere. A surprising crescendo and its aftermath suggested a giant, wheezing machine running down.
The Third Scene’s huge, tolling chords generated sound like a tremendous organ. Unequal lengths and shifting colors gradually broke up into individual parts and then reformed, punctuated by portentous percussion, dueling harps, and unearthly synthesizer tones for a bravura end to this major and important work.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Punkte from 1952 illustrated how mid-century modernism still informs today’s vanguard. The work is in moment form: a succession of musical events separated by rests, emphasizing each’s importance.
NWS brought the 24-year-old Stockhausen’s work to vivid life, with silences dividing evolving fusions of color, sometimes bridged by solo brass or winds. Challenging in its lack of melody and massive 30-minute length, Punkte demands great concentration from performers. Guided by Eötvös’ clear cuing and vision from the podium, the musicians’ sustained commitment and energy for this belated U.S. premiere spoke deeply.