Is the concert experience becoming more important than the music played? Han Chen’s 24th September performance of György Ligeti's 18 preludes, along with 18 newly commissioned responses, seemed designed to convince the audience at National Sawdust in Brooklyn – a venue that can, at times, play to the posh or trendy – that they were, indeed, experiencing greatness, or at least that they were at not just a recital but an event. It called to my mind a performance of Morton Feldman’s Palais de mari by the brilliant pianist Igor Levit in July, held in a giant, suspended geodesic dome with coloured lights filling in the interior on Manhattan’s west side. Both seemed of inflated proportion. 

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Han Chen
© Zhenwei Liu

The Ligeti concert, marking the composer’s centennial, was first and foremost an astounding performance by pianist Han Chen. That’s what matters. It was by comparison much less a spectacle than the Feldman fiasco, but still busied itself with coloured lights – fading and swirling and sometimes shifting quite abruptly, with little apparent correspondence to the music – and brief interludes of prerecorded ambient music to break up the two-hour run time. There was no printed program; instead titles and composer names were projected onto the nest of black support bars between the white acoustic panels at the rear of the stage. Composition notes were available via a QR code that took the user not to a web page but to a link to download an app that presumably had further information and which I bypassed. It all carried the stench of sensation. 

The program didn’t follow a simple call-and-response progression. Two or three of Ligeti’s études might be placed in succession, and then a few of the responses in some proximity to their sources. The music was presented as a whole in six sections, with a request that applause be held until the end and Chen playing nearly attacca. It was best heard that way, too, without concern for individual composers, indulging instead in Chen’s fluency and the richness of the Fazioli concert grand. That, however, is more than my concert-compulsive mind can manage. There were composers I quite like on the program (Jessie Cox, Vivian Fung, Molly Joyce, all of whom satisfied my anticipation), and there were discoveries to be had. Jared Miller’s Prelude adhered closer than most to the source material but also matched it in sheer ebullience. And Meng Wang’s Shadows, trailing... created wonderful sonic doppelgangers between keys and plucked strings. 

The remarkable thing about Ligeti’s music is the way it perseveres. It doesn’t need to be an event, it’s an occurrence. The world doesn’t revolve around Ligeti the way it does, say, Cage or Reich or Glass or Stockhausen when in their acoustic presence. Ligeti happens within the world, in spite of the world, because of the world. It’s full of simply joys, fascination and exhilaration. It invigorates and, quite like a breath of fresh air, it’s worthy of unforced appreciation.