Review: Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble Ends CMA Season With Ligeti Works

By Daniel Hathaway

Born in Romania, displaced by the Nazis, educated in Hungary, and finally settling first in Vienna then in Germany after the 1956 Hungarian revolution, György Ligeti spent a lot of his life on the move. Musically nomadic as well, he chased after a number of different compositional styles. Two of Ligeti’s pieces composed thirty years apart formed the backbone of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble’s arresting program in Gartner Auditorium of the Cleveland Museum of Art on Saturday afternoon, April 11.

During yet another engaging pre-concert interview, CME director Timothy Weiss held up the sheet music for Ligeti’s 1961/62 organ work, Volumina, while organ professor Jonathan Moyer described what the audience was about to hear. Commissioned by Radio Bremen, the score uses graphic notation — which means that pitches are approximate and open to interpretation by the performer, who is often required bring more parts of his body into action than just fingers and feet.

It’s a noisy, visceral work that begins with a huge, forearms-on-the-keyboard cluster that goes on for many minutes before tapering off into thinner textures. The sound level is ear-shattering when the full organ comes into play. At other points, the heterodyning of low chord clusters makes your ears throb in a different way.

Moyer performed Volumina during last year’s NEOsonicFest on the 17th-century style organ in the gallery of the Church of the Covenant, whose natural wind supply and mechanical stop-drawing mechanism added some special effects to the piece that Ligeti might not have imagined. That instrument sounded as if it had been punched in the stomach when whole-keyboard clusters were played, and its mechanical sliders allowed Moyer to draw and retire ranks of pipes smoothly and gradually.

The Holtkamp’s modern wind supply is rock solid, and ranks of pipes are either on or off, but Moyer and his two student assistants skillfully manipulated the instrument’s stop-changing gadgetry and venetian swell boxes to produce nearly seamless crescendos and diminuendos.

After working his way through pedal glissandos, ghostly murmurs, scampering squirrel music, high-pitched tinkles, blasts from reed stops and a six-hand toccata (plus feet), Ligeti ends Volumina by exploring some of the highest clusters available on the organ — an effect that would drive dogs crazy. It was a wild and exciting ride. Cheers to Jonathan Moyer for stepping in to perform the work when another piece was cancelled.

Read the rest of the review at
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