There were only two people on the stage, and not many more in the audience, for
this week’s Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum. The concert was
extraordinary even so, a reunion with one of the most remarkable musical minds
of our time.
Gyorgy Kurtag is reasonably well known among the new-music crowd. Five years
ago he made his first, and so far only, American appearance, as composer in
residence at the 1986 Ojai Festival. The lucky audiences there encountered a
shy, soft-spoken Hungarian gentleman in his early 60s. Better yet, they
encountered the richness, the robust iconoclasm of his music, especially his
song-cycle “Messages of R.V. Troussova,” which Susan Narucki sang
Monday’s concert was all one piece, Kurtag’s hour-long song-cycle “Kafka
Fragments,” and the remarkable Susan Narucki was again the singer, joined by
the equally remarkable Bay Area violinist Roy Malan. One song-cycle, 40 songs
(mostly extremely brief or, better said, compressed), one singer, one
violinist: that’s all it took for a powerful, fulfilling musical experience, as
much so as any of this season’s offerings at the Museum. That, in this
rewarding season, is saying a lot.
Kurtag’s texts are drawn from Kafka’s diaries and letters, fragmentary
impressions, sometimes just two or three words of stabbing eloquence. Around
these texts Kurtag weaves his two voices: the singer explicitly tied to the
texts, the violinist soaring on flights of fantasy inspired by the texts. Some
moments are overtly pictorial: the shrieking of birds, the undulating crawling
of snakes, a fiddler on a tramcar. Now and then the sharp-eared might detect a
reference to the work of Kurtag’s great countryman, Bela Bartok.
Kurtag does not flinch at wandering into exotic harmonic effects: quarter-
tones, a violin deliberately mistuned. You come away aware, not so much of the
juncture of composer, singer and instrumentalist, but of a oneness in which the
separate voices transcend themselves. “Kafka Fragments” is one of those rare
works, like the late Beethoven quartets, where the listener’s imagination is
teased to fill in around the sparseness of the music. Without stretching a
point, hearing this music in the capable care of these musicians became a
cleansing experience. Some sixty rapt listeners, adrift in an auditorium with
room for ten times as many, mustered a fine sendoff at the end. But where were