Every once in a while, you get a chance to expose yourself to a truly unique musical experience. This coming weekend, the Signs, Games & Messages festival at Bard College is just such an opportunity.
Signs, Games & Messages is the name of an evolving song cycle by Hungarian composer György Kurtág, who was born in Romania in 1926, and moved to Budapest in 1946.
“His music delves into the inner workings of the psyche,” says Shai Wosner, the festival’s curator. “It is full of references to Western music history as well as central European folk music.”
For a starting point, listeners familiar with John Cage might find similarities in Kurtág’s predilection for disappearing into complete silence, only to reappear two beats later than expected. The sweet dissonance of violins soaring a bit too close for comfort may also remind one of Béla Bartók.
“The Hungarian identity and Bartók in particular are very important in Kurtág’s world,” Wosner affirms.
Another signature of Kurtág’s work is the expansive emotional range assigned to soloists. In his Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, for example, the soprano actually goes from laughing one moment to an intentional coughing fit the next. The effect is quite dramatic.
Is it fair to describe Kurtág’s work as abstract, dissonant, or challenging?
“I would add mysterious, enigmatic, meditative, and also witty and humorous at times!” Wosner insists. “I can’t stress this enough—this is not cerebral music. You don’t need to ‘know’ anything to understand it. It often includes texts which lead into the inner world of each piece, but in many ways, his music is quite theatrical and always has the listener in mind.”
In fact, at least one of the performances (Friday evening) will include supertitles to make sure concert goers can follow the text in English.
If you’re wondering how the works of a seemingly obscure Hungarian composer became a yearly festival (this is its second year, and it will continue) the story has an interesting beginning.
Shai Wosner himself is an internationally recognized pianist, well-known for his critically-acclaimed recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas. When he was only 12, his teacher actually arranged a meeting with György Kurtág.
“Hungary was at the end of the Communist era,” Wosner remembers. “We met at his apartment in Budapest and read music for piano 4-hands together. I had no idea that next to me was one of the towering figures of late 20th-century music!”
Wosner, who is also on the music faculty at Bard, could not believe his luck when a gift from Lázlo and Olivia Bitó allowed the college to begin a festival celebrating Kurtág’s music.
“I was thrilled to be asked to curate it for both personal and musical reasons. His music converses with so much other music that it lends itself to various pairings that are the essence of festival programming.”
By juxtaposing the mystery and whimsy of Kurtág’s compositions with more familiar points of reference, each performance in the series will be accessible to any curious music fan. Here’s a quick guide to this year’s festival pairings and schedule:
Fri. 2/24, 8-9:30pm
Kurtág and Schubert
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Tony Arnold, soprano
Sat. 2/25, 1-2:30pm
Kurtág, Bartók, Ravel, Bizet and more
Featuring Bard Preparatory Division students and various faculty pianists (including Shai Wosner)
Bitó Conservatory Building
Sat. 2/25, 7-8:30pm
Kurtág and Beethoven
Quartets featuring both conservatory students and faculty
Chapel of the Holy Innocents
Sun. 2/26, 2-4:00pm
Kurtág and Schumann
Featuring Bard Contemporary Ensemble and others
Bitó Conservatory Building
Since each event is at a different venue on the Bard campus, you might want to consult the Bard website for locations and parking details. View their conservatory events page to see which pieces are being presented at each performance.
Check out the whole festival, or just a single performance. The event is free and open to the general public.
“Many Hungarian composers are happy to erase the line between serious and playful—there is nothing they loath more than pretentiousness!” Wosner says.
“It’s really important that people don’t have preconceptions and treat this as a kind of forbidding ritual. This festival simply creates a space for you to hear otherworldly, thought-provoking music you will not hear otherwise.”
For more information about Signs, Games & Messages, visit https://www.bard.edu/conservatory/events/.