“I am in a prison,” the composer György Ligeti said in a 1993 lecture at New England Conservatory. “One wall is the avant-garde; the other the past. I want to escape.”
Anniversary celebrations in classical music can wear thin, but this has hardly been the case with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s weeklong festival honoring Ligeti’s centennial. Thursday evening, the orchestra — led by guest conductor and former BSO artistic partner Thomas Adès, with piano soloist Kirill Gerstein — served a generous slice of his birthday cake, with a characteristically eclectic program that harmonized with the sensibilities of Ligeti and Adès both.
Ligeti’s own life was punctuated with escapes. Born in Transylvania to a Hungarian Jewish family, he survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary in a forced labor brigade, and a decade later fled the country for Austria with his wife during the 1956 Soviet invasion. (Some accounts have the couple concealing themselves under or within mailbags.) Until his death at 83 in 2006, he was restless as a composer, refusing to settle within one signature idiom.
That braid of curiosity, humor, and discontent might instead be seen as his musical signature. That spirit wound through the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with its unstable but strangely intuitive rhythms and surreal collage of melodies. Gerstein was in his element with his frequent creative partner Adès on the podium, and special praise is owed to the string quintet that anchored the orchestra through the piece. The score calls for only one player of each wind instrument, but Adès decided to present it with only one string player per section as well, a stripped-down orchestration allowed by the score.
In practice, everyone’s internal clock had to be impeccably precise (Adès only has so many limbs for cueing), and the orchestra pulled it off with panache and grace. The piece became less a piano concerto and more one for chamber ensemble and piano, with each instrument sharing the soloist’s spotlight. Bravi, all.
There was one unfortunate if unintentional consequence of reducing the instrumentation; it left Ligeti’s birthday party without any of his orchestral music. That aside, the two chamber concerts I attended earlier in the week were both superb.
Sunday afternoon, the pews of Saint Cecilia Church on Belvidere Street filled for Lorelei Ensemble and organist Heinrich Christensen’s afternoon program, featuring a combination of the Renaissance polyphony Ligeti loved, the composer’s own idiosyncratic organ music, a few selections from the sprawling “Játékok” project by composer György Kurtág, and some reluctantly folksy tidbits for chorus from Ligeti’s years under the artistic scrutiny of the Communist regime.
At Monday evening’s all-Ligeti program at Symphony Hall, the merry pranksters of Callithumpian Consort under director Stephen Drury offered the rarely performed “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures,” two experimental works that live in an indulgent intersection of music and performance art. That evening also included Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto as performed by student ensemble [nec]shivaree and the young Meraki String Quartet with an exquisite, spun-glass rendition of his String Quartet No. 1. (Watch those four.)
Finally, there was a rare live presentation of the composer’s “Poème symphonique” for 100 windup metronomes; the performers set them to different tempos, wind them up, and let them go, and where they stop, well, who knows?
Thursday’s orchestral program began with Liszt’s symphonic poem “Les préludes,” seemingly the odd piece out on the otherwise post-World War II program. The piece was extremely popular in the BSO’s early years but has been seldom performed since 1940. That data suggests a pleasant if dusty warhorse, but there was nothing stale about the crackling, whimsical performance that Adès and the orchestra produced.
The museum piece was instead Stravinsky’s ballet “Orpheus,” which began the second half without the spark of “Préludes” and the concerto. The BSO had not performed “Orpheus” since 2002, and Adès’s own “Tevot” was entirely new to the orchestra, so it’s no stretch to think the musicians may have been swamped. Adès’s interpretive hand seemed unusually subdued, which also contributed to the somewhat drab atmosphere of the piece.
However, “Tevot” ended the evening in a shower of stars, exploring the extremes of orchestral sound through swirling, bewildering layers of movement. Listening to the piece recorded has always felt like watching a spaceship glide through the void; listening to a live performance is probably the closest most of us will get to standing at that ship’s prow. Through the prominent appearance of Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” many have come to associate the composer’s music with the vastness of space. It’s not hard to imagine a similar landscape in “Tevot,” the music escaping the constraints of both avant-garde and past as it escapes the boundaries of gravity.
Presented by Boston Symphony Orchestra with Goethe-Institut Boston, New England Conservatory, and Lorelei Ensemble. Various venues. Nov. 12-19. Boston Symphony Orchestra concert repeats Nov. 18. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org