Hungarian Rhapsodies

Posted February 4, 2009 at 4:53pm

Pre-eminent composer György Kurtág, 82, has come to the United States for the first time this week to perform the world premiere of his “Hommage à Bartók for Two and Four Hands” at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. The concert will be held 8 p.m. Saturday.

Kurtág’s composition, commissioned by the Library of Congress’ Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, pays tribute to his fellow composer and countryman Béla Bartók, one of the significant musicians of the 20th century.

Susan Vita, chief of the Library’s music division, said Kurtág’s performance at the Coolidge Auditorium is a rare and memorable opportunity.

“The Library has a history of commissioning most prominent composers, and Kurtág certainly has that stature,” Vita said.

The roster of nearly 100 commissions from the foundation includes Igor Stravinsky’s “Apollon Musagète”; Maurice Ravel’s “Chansons Madécasses”; the third and fourth string quartets of Arnold Schoenberg; Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs”; Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Dancer on a Tightrope”; and Aaron Copland’s iconic ballet “Appalachian Spring.”

In the 1930s, the Library had commissioned Bartók to compose Sonata No. 2, which he performed with violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1940 at the Coolidge Auditorium. Bartók’s music was a rallying theme in the Hungarians’ fight against authoritarianism during the Stalinist regime in Hungary.

Concert producer Anne McLean said Kurtág wished to write on his manuscript that his composition is in memory of the historic relationship between the Library and Hungarian music that is “sacrosanct for all Hungarians.”

For Kurtág to make such remarks meant a lot, McLean said, given the foundation’s effort to convince the Hungarian composer to create a piece for the Library. McLean said Kurtág has turned down numerous offers for a commissioned work. “He practically stopped performing in public. But he was touched by the Library’s profound interest in Hungarian music,” she said.

“Actually, a box of Hungarian pastries and tea did the trick,” said Jakab Orsós, director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in New York. He said Kurtág did not want to come to the U.S. because he was so busy. “Kurtág is super-diligent. He told me that he has a lot of work to complete before he dies. He was not interested in traveling and would rather stay home.”

Orsós said he sought Laszlo Goz, a Hungarian editor, to be his emissary. Since mid-2007, Orsós took several eight-hour flights to Budapest from New York to court Kurtág into agreeing to perform in the United States. Orsós was not totally selfless in pursuing this endeavor. He wanted Kurtág to be part of “Extremely Hungary,” a yearlong festival of performances and exhibitions celebrating the country’s contemporary arts and its impact on American culture.

One afternoon, Orsós and Goz brought some Hungarian pastries when visiting Kurtág and his wife of six decades, Márta. “We were talking and eating pastries. Out of the blue, he said ‘yes,’” Orsós said.

Joining Kurtág on stage is Márta, a pianist, and the Keller Quartet. They will also perform selections from Kurtág’s “Játékok” (Games), his “6 Moments Musicaux” and Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet, also a Coolidge commission.

Tickets to the Kurtág performance are sold out. Coolidge Auditorium can seat only 511 people. But Kurtág enthusiasts may also stand in line outside the auditorium for last-minute tickets. Saturday’s concert will also be broadcast in the U.S. as part of the Concerts from the Library of Congress series, now heard on more than 180 stations. National Public Radio, the European Broadcasting Union and Hungarian Radio will collaborate to make the performance available to European audiences.

Before coming to D.C., the Kurtágs performed with violinist Hiromi Kikuchi on Sunday at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Kurtág gained international acclaim in 1981 when his piece “Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova” for soprano and chamber ensemble premiered in Paris. From 1993 to 1995, he was composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He also composed music for the Vienna Konzerthausgesellschaft in 1995.

Kurtág was born on Feb. 19, 1926, in Lugoj, Romania (previously Hungary). At 20, he began his studies at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, where he met his wife and became friends with fellow composer György Ligeti.

From 1957 to 1958, Kurtág studied with French composers Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud in Paris. In 1959, Kurtág returned to Budapest and worked as a repetiteur with the National Philharmonia for nearly a decade. He also taught piano at the Liszt Academy from 1967 to 1993.

In 2006, the Budapest Music Centre held a festival celebrating Kurtág’s 80th birthday.