UChicago Presents series celebrates 20th-century composer Gyorgy Ligeti

Over the next several months, University of Chicago Presents will celebrate the life and works of celebrated 20th-century classical composer, György Ligeti, through a series of musical events and lectures.

Amy Iwano, executive director of University of Chicago Presents, has long hoped to organize a performance around Ligeti, who is considered one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the last century. Her intent was to create a celebration both of his music and scholarship.

“We are very lucky in Chicago to have fantastic artists and ensembles who create really interesting programming, and in these concerts, we see Ligeti’s legacy—his impact on a younger generation of artists and how his music is evolving in their hands,” Iwano said.

Iwano worked closely with Music Department musicologists Seth Brodsky and Jennifer Iverson and composers Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta, along with musical groups Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird, to create the series that began earlier this October. The series concludes on March 6 with a special performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the famed pianist who worked closely with Ligeti during his lifetime.

Born in Romania in 1923, Ligeti was of Hungarian descent and had a tumultuous early life. While receiving his musical training, he was sent to a forced labor camp while his family were deported to concentration camps.

After World War II, Ligeti resumed his education and became a teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, but fled to Vienna following the Soviet defeat of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. He would go on to become of the most influential composers of the mid-20th century, and became known to the larger public when his pieces were used in several of Stanley Kubrick’s films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jennifer Iverson, assistant professor of music, said she is excited to hear so many of Ligeti’s pieces, which are known to be extremely technically difficult, be performed live, and thinks that listeners are in for a special treat.

“Audiences tend to love his music and be taken with it,” Iverson said. “His aesthetic is much more playful and freewheeling as far as 20th-century composers go. But technically, it’s so difficult. It’s quite special and unique to have so many performances happening live over the course of this year.”

On Friday, Feb. 2, Eighth Blackbird will join with Hungarian percussion group Amadinda to perform a selection of Ligeti’s piano etudes. Then, on Friday, Feb. 16, Third Coast Percussion will present three of Ligeti’s works, including Poème Symphonique, a spectacular performance that includes 100 mechanical metronomes. Both shows will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Logan Center.

David Skidmore, executive director of Third Coast Percussion, said his group is thrilled to get to share the works of “one of the great composers of our lifetime at the height of his prowess” with the UChicago community. Skidmore says they are working closely with UChicago students to prepare for the show, who are helping to procure the metronomes.

“The students will also help us design the performance, which leaves a lot to the imagination and allows for some fun extra-musical ideas with regards to staging, position of the metronomes in the concert hall,” Skidmore said. “It's so rare to hear a live performance of this piece, and we're so excited to bring the performance to Chicago!”

Each concert will also feature a pre-performance lecture by a member of the music faculty; and following the concert series, the Department of Music will host a scholarly conference, “Dislocations: Reassessing Ligeti,” from March 7-8. 

Recently, the Ligeti Series was recognized with a prestigious $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which Iwano said will “help support this year’s Ligeti Series as a testament to his life and legacy.”

More information on all the events of the Ligeti Series is available here.