From The Academy: Leelanee Sterrett on Ligeti's Violin Concerto
On December 19, Ensemble ACJW will join forces with Sir Simon Rattle, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and soprano Barbara Hannigan to perform a program of works by Rameau, Ligeti, and Richard Strauss. Two members of the ensemble—Brian Ellingsen and Leelanee Sterrett—share their thoughts on working with these luminaries of the classical music world. Today, Leelanee Sterrett writes about the complexity of Liegti's Violin Concerto and the importance of working with the highest caliber artists.
In less than two weeks, Ensemble ACJW will be performing the works of Rameau, Strauss, and Ligeti in Zankel Hall, led by Sir Simon Rattle and featuring soloists Christian Tetzlaff and Barbara Hannigan. This is a concert and collaboration I've been looking forward to with giddy anticipation all season. Add to that, since receiving my French horn part to Ligeti's Violin Concerto two months ago, a fair bit of trepidation as well. The piece is kaleidoscopic, wild, and haunting.
Ligeti's sonic palate is vast; for me, the experience of hearing this piece is visceral and emotionally involved. It's also really, really challenging to play. Maybe the most challenging piece I have ever prepared in an orchestra. For starters, the horn players are instructed to play without the modern convenience of our valves throughout the first three movements. Ligeti writes, "Play always as a Waldhorn, keep the right hand away from the bell, do not correct the natural tones." Essentially, this entails playing extended passages using a single combination of depressed valves. The sound and technique emulate the natural horn ("Waldhorn") of the past by using only those pitches belonging to the natural overtone series. However, things are complicated by the fact that not all of these natural tones align with our more evenly tempered sense of pitch, so many of the notes sound quite out of tune. In fact, Ligeti even asks that several string players "de-tune" their instruments to match the natural harmonics as played by the bass. It's a bear to work out these passages, but the resulting effect is satisfyingly nostalgic and eerily ethereal.
Considering several other requirements in the score, I guess I should be happy that at least I'm playing on my own, familiar instrument: the woodwinds, in addition to doubling on standard auxiliary instruments (piccolo, E-flat clarinet, etc.), are tripling on various ocarinas and recorders. Mechanical complexities aside, there still remain the various challenges of rhythm, structure, and ensemble in the piece.
In all of this, Ensemble ACJW could not find more capable leadership than Maestro Rattle and Mr. Tetzlaff. I cannot wait to hear how this performance will come to life under their leadership. These two artists are so much a part of the here-and-now of classical music, and their expertise and versatility as performers informs our highest standards in music making today. It is tremendously exciting, not to mention a little nerve-wracking, of course, to work with such icons in the field. But more than that, this collaboration is a terrific reminder that we emerging professionals belong to a living, evolving tradition of music making and sharing.
While I've focused primarily on the Ligeti Violin Concerto here, the full program for December 19 is fantastically varied. It will be fascinating to see how Maestro Rattle approaches Rameau's suite from Les Boréades in comparison to Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre. Mr. Tetzlaff, after performing the Ligeti concerto, will lead a string ensemble as concertmaster in Strausss' Metamorphosen. To be a part of this concert reinforces my belief that live performance is a vibrant and relevant experience for everyone involved. I think Ensemble ACJW's performance will have as much to do with the relationship between musicians, composers, and listeners, as it will with individual virtuosity or compositional complexity. At least, that's how I see it! In any case, December 19's concert is going to be something special, and I hope you'll come share the experience.