Eötvös Conducts Filarmonica della Scala in World Premiere

The Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös is not reluctant to take on challenging contemporary topics. His opera Angels in America (2004), for example, is based on Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” a play set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. Now, his new orchestral work Alle vittime senza nome, a co-commission from four leading Italian orchestras, commemorates the large numbers of African and Arab migrants that have lost their lives crossing Italian seas in recent months.

The work received its world premiere at La Scala on 8 May 2017, in a concert from the Filarmonica della Scala conducted by Eötvös himself. This was the biggest draw in a programme featuring pieces by the composer’s compatriots — his predecessors Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and his contemporary György Kurtág — but also its weak link. Described by the composer as a “danced requiem,” Alle vittime senza nome is a dense tapestry of overlapping melodic fragments evoking the mass of faces seen in photos of packed boats headed for Italian shores. Here, it was given a pithy reading possessing rhythmic clarity, and the orchestra evoked an eerie atmosphere in a web of descending wailing strings, stretching out the silences in between for dramatic effect. Yet this is a largely unanchored work which deals in vague atmospherics, and Eötvös provides little material of real substance to grab hold of over its 25-minute span, with the result that the piece is over before it really gets going. We get little of the stinging emotion in Eötvös’s similarly atmospheric piano work Kosmos for two pianos (1999), or the explosive invention of his piece for shouting percussionist and orchestra Speaking Drums: Four Poems for Percussion Solo and Orchestra (2013). Compared with Eötvös’s most celebrated output — the composer is a preeminent figure on today’s contemporary music scene — the new work underwhelms, and it sounded opaque within this otherwise vibrant programme.

Péter Eötvös--Photo by Marco Borggreve

Péter Eötvös–Photo by Marco Borggreve

Rather, it was as a conductor that Eötvös made the biggest impact. His no-frills beating style drew brawny playing from the orchestra in Kodály’s folk-inspired Dances of Marosszék — though whenever the lush love theme comes around, there was the suave lyricism that has long been this orchestra’s calling card — and Eötvös clearly has this music coursing through his veins. Kurtág’s Petite musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez 90, commissioned by the 2015 Lucerne Festival to commemorate the composer’s 90th birthday, provided sharp contrast, the Filarmonica realising the glassy timbres and slowly-morphing clusters with great skill. That the concert was dedicated to the memory of Boulez was fitting, considering that Eötvös was chosen by the Frenchman to direct the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 1970s onwards, and remains one of his foremost interpreters.

Yet the real fil rouge in this programme was the Hungarian theme. The Suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (1924), a one-act ballet or “pantomime grotesque” inspired by Menyhért Lengyel’s story of a girl that lures apparently wealthy men to a perilous end, most strongly represented the modernist legacy of which Kurtág and Eötvös are both heirs. And from the opening depiction of the whirring “concrete jungle” to the girl’s seedy dance to the rambunctious ending in which the Mandarin makes his move, the Filarmonica sounded gutsy and self-assured. Indeed, recent outings suggest that the new music director Riccardo Chailly’s policy of broadening the repertoire is raising standards. That this is the second world premiere that the Filarmonica has given in the current season after Boccadoro’s Piano Concerto is in itself cause for celebration.