Music for our times

February 15th, 2013

Friday night, at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace: onto the stage strolls a skinny young guy, black trousers, black shirt, no tie. Spiky hair, bit of a beard. Quirky look: could be an activist from Avenue Bourguiba.  A shy smile to the audience, he sits at the piano. Silence… then a single note, simple, urgent, repeated, again..and again.  You knew this was going to be ‘different’.  This was music for the twenty-first century: Young Virtuoso Juan Perez Floristan plays Giorgy Ligeti’s ‘Musica ricercata’. Thrilling.

Floristan 3

Why was it so exciting? Well, first of all, the piece was perfect for the time and place. This is Tunisia in the aftermath of a youth-led revolution that is still a ‘work in progress’.  An event that starts out simple with a single note, attracts more voices, gains intensity, gathers momentum and ends up with all hell breaking lose. Sounds familiar?  Listen to the opening piece (click ‘open link in new tab’ and keep it playing as you read): Musica ricercata.

It’s a composition with eleven short episodes: anger, insistence, frustration, uncertainly, moments of calm, even lyricism, followed swiftly by turbulent periods of intense passion as ideas and identities compete for space.  Aged 30 when he finished Musica ricercata, Ligeti had already ‘lived in interesting times’.


He explained how he felt when he wrote the piece: I was in Stalinist terroristic Hungary, where this kind of music was not allowed. And I just wrote it for myself … when I composed it in the year 1950, it was desperate. It was knife in Stalin’s heart.

It wasn’t just the brilliance of the work, it was also the way Young Virtuoso Juan Perez Floristan attacked the piece. He’s a seasoned performer: passionate about the piano from an early age, he was taught by his mother (herself a concert pianist), and then attended Reina Sofia Escuela Superior de Musica  where he graduated a star pupil. He’s since taken master-classes with the likes of Barenboim, Gutierrez and Yablonskaya, and has already appeared with major orchestras across Europe.

Now Juan is here in Tunisia, leading off the seventh season of the Young Virtuosi at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace.  He’s only 19, but once he starts to play, you forget his age: he interprets the piece with maturity as if he too has lived through turbulent times. I felt privileged to share that journey.

This is the first page of the score: the insistent opening notes of Musica ricercata:

Ligeti MR 1

If they look or sound familiar, it’s because they have often been used in film soundtracks, in particular to sinister effect by Stanley Kubrik in Eyes Wide Shut.  


In response to the use of this piece,  a reviewer at that time noted:

The piano notes just keep clanging, one by one, a little bit up, a little bit down, … I wanted the music to stop. Sometimes it does. But it always returns. And when I would hear that first clanging piano note, the Pavlovian dread would rise up again. “Oh, no, not THAT music again.”

Clearly, that’s how some of the audience felt too. Several fled the scene (the crescendo sections provided good cover) and there were noticeable gaps in the room 33 minutes later. But those who stayed were treated to a bravura performance.

Their reward (if they needed more than the Ligeti) was equally exciting versions of classic twentieth century Spanish pieces by Granados, and de Falla. These were followed by the hotter, slightly jazzy ‘Argentine Dances’ from Alberto Ginastera,  first the slower-moving ‘Dance of the Old Herdsman’,  then the more lyrical ‘Dance of the Beautiful Maiden’ and finally the show-stopping ‘Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy.’  Perez Floristan rose to the occasion, following Ginastera’s directions  by playing furiosamente,  violente,  and salvaggio,  attacking vigorously the keyboard for the final coda ffff with a tremendous glissando  to bring the piece, and indeed the performance, to an end.

Bravo Juan.

Interviewed after the concert, he commented on his choice of music:

I knew some of the audience would find the Ligeti difficult. Indeed, my teacher asked me: ‘Are you sure? Really? I said ‘Yes’. I  wanted to present something new, modern, exciting…. I chose it because I love playing it.”

His passion for the piece shone through. That’s what is special about the Jeunes Virtuosi series at the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra: it’s an introduction to new voices, new talents, new experiences: the stars of tomorrow on stage today.  The concerts are a flagship programme of the Centre for Arab Mediterranean Music (CMAM), and also promote East – West musical exchanges. So it’s fitting that the opening concert teamed young artists from Spain and Tunisia.  In the first half, local ud player Nada Mahmud performed classical twentieth century compositions by Iraqi Khaled Mohammed Ali, Tunisian Ridha Kalaï,  Egyptian Mohammed Qasabji and Turkish Masud Cemil bey.


It was an excellent performance.

Apparently she was very nervous. It didn’t show: she looked relaxed and engaging. She was accompanied by renowned percussionist Mohammed Abdul Qader Haj Qacim  (her tutor  / mentor) and they clearly took a delight in playing together, exchanging the nods and smiles of an ongoing musical conversation. Theirs was also a refreshingly energetic youthful performance.  Most ud-led orchestras are dominated by the ‘old men’ of music, who play at a rather sedate pace. It’s like traveling on a slow-moving camel caravan: a soft-shoed plod across the desert sands with the occasional canter. In contrast, this performance was the fast horse version: Nada Mahmoud in the lead, champing at the bit, tightening the reins and galloping off at full tilt issuing the challenge: “Keep up Gharbi”. He did. But he better watch out in the future in case the young virtuoso overtakes.

So, two different performances, but both equally rewarding in their own ways.  You can see  clips of the performances from  Juan Perez Floristan’s and Nada Mahmoud on the Ennejma Ezzahra facebook page.

The sign of a good concert is that the audience goes home wanting more. Well, that was just the first concert of the season.  You’ve missed the 12-year-old Italian pianist: Daklen Difato, but there is still time to grab tickets for:

Friday February 22nd:  Ozan Sari (Turkey), violin and baglama, and then Annika Treutler (Germany),  piano

Saturday February 23rd: Khaled Belheni (Tunisia), qanoun, and then  from Netherlands, duo Daan Boertien, piano and Stefan de Wijs, saxophone

Sunday February 24th: Seifeddine Ben Mhenni (Tunisia), ud, and then Mischa Kozlowski (Poland),  piano

Concerts start at 7pm, at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace in Sidi Bou Said. Tickets on the door, but they may sell out, so you may want to get tickets in advance.

‘Wanting more’ also means finding out more. For me, I wanted to know more about the Ligeti piece.  A quick search on-line revealed fascinating insights, some of which informed the review above. Do not for one minute think I know anything about the theory of composition or the technique of playing classical music. For me, a concert is simply an invitation to a voyage: I know that both Nada and Juan would be fun people with whom to travel

Talking of fun… I could not resist including this piece of sheet music from another Ligeti piece (cello concerto). Haha.. and the audience at Ennejma Ezzahra thought Musica ricercata was difficult… !

ligeti cocerto for cello

For more background on Ligeti see here and for long interview from BBC – available in MP3 format or transcript. Then  LOTS of references on Ligeti here

The quotation from Ligeti concerning use of his music in Kubrik’s films  is taken from a very short interview from the 2001 documentary: “Stanley Kubrik: a life in pictures” in the segment concerning Eyes Wide Shut. On this version on YouTube the interview comes around the 6 minute mark.  And then to  watch a clip of Eyes Wide Shut that uses the piece to ‘sinister effect’ see here.  I quoted from the excellent review by Sheila O’Malley of Eyes Wide Shut and the use of Musica ricercata

Look here for more on Ginastera’s Argentine Dances.

For more on the ud pieces see: Iraqi composer Khaled Mohammed Ali;  Egyptian composer Mohammed Qasabji and Turkish composer  Masud Cemil bey