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A roller-coaster ride across the keys

Interview

Shai Wosner joins Aurora Orchestra for a programme
that juxtaposes Mozart with Ligeti. Helen Wallace asks
the American-Israeli virtuoso why they’re well-matched.

This concert cuts across time and style to a dizzying degree…
When Nick (Collon) and I set out to devise this concert, we were both looking for that magical feeling you get when you put together very different pieces and let the inner workings of the music highlight hidden connections. For example, there’s a translucence and melancholy in Glass’s Mad Rush that finds a resonance in Chopin’s Mazurka, Op. 17, deriving perhaps from how both composers react to the qualities of A minor.

What do you love so much about Ligeti’s Piano Concerto?
There’s something luminous and natural about it that I find irresistible. Ligeti struggled with the start and then – BAM! – the light turned on and it seemed to compose itself. It’s not the complexity but the spontaneity that I admire, and its explosive power. It moves like a roller-coaster from exhilarating to devastating and back again.

You’ve recently recorded Ligeti and Haydn. How does Mozart fit in with Ligeti?
For me, Ligeti and Haydn share a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. Mozart, on the other hand, brings to mind Ligeti’s fascination with perfection. Around the time his Piano Concerto and Etudes were written, Ligeti found a source of expression in the tension between the apparent perfection of abstract, pure musical elements (all kinds of interlocking rhythmic patterns, for example) and the imperfections of the humans and instruments executing them (the ‘out-of-tune’ natural harmonics on brass instruments, extreme ranges of dynamic, etc.). Mozart is the ultimate example of perfection in art, but his music is, of course, always about the complexity of human emotion. So there’s an interesting ground to be explored between these two composers.

‘There’s something luminous and natural about Ligeti’s Piano Concerto that I find irresistible’

Ligeti said of his Piano Concerto that he was moving toward more ‘transparent crystalline structures’…
Absolutely. He was interested in the duality between order and chaos. So on the one hand, you have long stretches where almost everything fits in a grand pattern and nothing is random, and others can feel infectiously spontaneous, and even funny: the fourth movement evolves into a shouting match. Ligeti hinted at an allegory behind it all: those meticulously conceived structures behind the wild music are a bit like the relentlessly rigid bureaucracy that leads to mayhem.

How do you view Glass’s laconic Mad Rush?
Whenever I hear it, I see silent, accelerated-motion footage of rush hour in New York. If you actually go through rush hour at Penn Station, you yearn for Glass’s soothing sonorities, believe me.

Do your children comment on the music you practise at home?
They do have opinions, especially my daughter who has developed a strong liking for the Ligeti. At a very young age she started repeating some of those not-so-easy rhythmic patterns, making me feel five feet taller in the process.

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