When you enter the theater at the Austrian Cultural Forum, you immediately begin looking for the rest of it. That they managed to fit this 80-seat space into their narrow edifice is a feat of engineering. That they prefer to present free concerts of interesting music, boosting the competition for those few seats, is simply cruel.
But I was lucky enough to score just one ticket thanks to Tony Arnold, the guest soprano who appeared with the ensemble Either/Or, which presented a concise, other-worldly portrait of chamber works by György Kurtág. The centerpiece of the ensemble was the Hungarian cimbalom, a dulcimer-like instrument found originally in gypsy music, which percussionist David Shively played like a god.
The bulk of the program was given over to vocal works, featuring short poems and fragments by Hungarian poets Gulyás Pál and Amy Károlyi and the Russian-born poet and novelist Rimma Dalos. For the most part, the texts were despairing, and in another composer’s hands it might have been just a long, sad evening, but Kurtag creates a tiny world in each setting. While one reviewer found the experience tedious, I tried to find my way into each new world. Each spare yet rich fragment was entirely different from the rest, enchanting or frightening, nostalgic or silly. Most exciting was how the performers exchanged their colors, Arnold blending her voice effortlessly with the lower part of the cimbalom and then the upper registers of the violin, the violin matching the percussion instrument and the bass playing like a fiddle.
Later in the week, I had a similar sensation of traveling among different worlds and timbres while I was singing through some of the St. John Passion choruses. Bach couldn’t be a more opposite composer to Kurtag, but each segment of his works is its own universe. The throbbing opening of “Herr unser Herrscher” conveys an urgent fear, but later when the text turns more reassuring, you forget that you could ever have been afraid.