By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE — No recording of the 28-minute Ligeti Violin Concerto can adequately prepare a first-time listener for the emotional impact of the live event. Or so it seemed to this concerto virgin at the Seattle Symphony’s first concert of the New Year (Jan. 4), in which soloist Augustin Hadelich joined music director Ludovic Morlot and a pared-down ensemble of 24 to deliver a stunning concert opener in Benaroya Hall.
It wasn’t just the strange scordatura tuning of concertmaster Cordula Merks and violist Artur Girsky, which created microtonal clashes with the nine other instruments in the ensemble’s string section. Nor was it Ligeti’s instruction that brass players utilize sometimes jarring natural harmonics, or that wind players sometimes trade their tried and true instruments for the oft-waving pitch of recorders and silly sounding ocarinas. Rather, the most mesmerizing feature of a concerto that Hadelich described in the program notes as “by turns beautiful, frightening, joyous, painful and virtuosic” is how miraculously he and Morlot transformed it into a deeply moving, heartfelt journey.
Of Hadelich’s technical ability, beauty of tone, and soulful approach to music there were no questions. Having previously helped Seattle Symphony and Morlot snare a 2017 Grammy Award for their recording of the Dutilleux Violin Concerto, L’Arbre des Songes, the Juilliard-trained artist first came on the scene in 2006 when, at age 22, he received the Gold Medal in the International Violin Competition in Indianapolis. That this triumph came just seven years after burns from a fire at his family’s farm in Italy threatened to end his career, and required multiple hospitalizations and skin grafts, was remarkable.
Hadelich has since soloed with many of the major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad, won the inaugural Warner Music Prize, and been named Musical America’s 2018 Instrumentalist of the Year. He is preparing to make news with the same Ligeti concerto Jan. 25-27 at the Boston Symphony – introducing the U.S. premiere of a cadenza written by Thomas Adès, who will be conducting. (In early February, Hadelich will play both concerto and new cadenza with the Milwaukee Symphony under the baton of 28-year-old English conductor Ben Gernon.)
Rather than leave the audience on its own to possibly stumble over and through Ligeti’s oft bizarre sound world, the Seattle Symphony began the concert with a three-minute video introduction in which Morlot described Ligeti’s “shimmering” orchestral effects. He also invited a few members of the orchestra to first demonstrate scordatura and then do what to some long-extinct feathered creature might have sounded like an ocarina mating dance from another galaxy. Sweet as the video intro was, it gave no hint of the extraordinary radiance that would soon be created in the five-movement concerto’s opening Praeludium, as chimes and xylophone were superimposed over Hadelich’s immensely challenging, softly played, and impeccably controlled lines.
Hadelich played the second movement’s deceptively simple and accessible opening Aria in such an affecting, mournful manner that he left listeners unprepared for the microtonal onslaught that followed. As weird as the ocarinas sounded, they eventually ceded to more of the strange, touching beauty that Hadelich miraculously bowed straight to the heart.
The concerto’s initially mysterious Intermezzo seemed surprisingly lyrical until, suddenly, it began to resemble shooting stars on an inevitable collision course. Hadelich’s haunting, now vibrato-less playing at the start of the ensuing Passacaglia was interrupted by startling exclamations from drum and tambourine. By turns mysterious and frightening — two swanee whistles emerged in the middle of a score that also called for glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimbaphone, crotales, tubular bells, tamtam, two woodblocks, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, and whip — this penultimate movement ended with a shimmering radiance that was made all the more compelling by Hadelich’s emotional honesty and flawless technique. Kudos as well to percussion principal Michael Werner and guest timpanist Eric Schweikert, whose cumulative impact was stronger than one sometimes hears from this section.
In the agitated concluding Appassionata, Hadelich’s violin began to slash through the musical fabric as though violence was its only concern. After a radical snap — was that the whip? — we experienced what seemed like a climactic event without it ever becoming clear what had climaxed. Hadelich began to play extraordinarily high, his haunting lines eventually interrupted by a sudden snap-crackle-pop that left the audience hanging at the concerto’s suspended-in-space conclusion.
After being called back to the stage several times, Hadelich delighted the audience with Paganini’s Caprice No. 21. Although this showstopper abounds in technical challenges, nothing could impede the flow of Hadelich’s engaging, mournful sound, which took us deeper and deeper.
What I found most extraordinary about this encore and the two pieces in the second half of the program — Stravinsky’s long-lost Pogrebal’naya Pesnya (Funeral Song), in its West Coast premiere, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 — is how listening to the Ligeti transformed the experience. It was as if perception had been sharpened and every contrasting line emerged with unprecedented clarity. As much as Morlot and the orchestra deserve ample credit for shaping performances of such remarkable transparency, Ligeti’s ability to create an altered state of consciousness that lingers long after his music has finished cannot be ignored.
While Stravinsky’s 12-minute funeral song creates a sound world all its own, its development seems influenced by the drug-charged delirium of Wagner’s love duet in Tristan und Isolde and the waves of sound that Debussy created in La mer and other works. Regardless, its strong rhythms and succession of changing instrumentation reflect Stravinsky’s desire to, in the words of program annotator Paul Schiavo and the composer himself, paint “the constituent members of the orchestra filing in succession past the tomb of [Stravinsky’s] teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, ‘each laying down its melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings.’” The performance was haunting.
That Ligeti loved Mozart inspired Morlot to end the concert with Mozart’s 39th Symphoniy. Not one to mimic the practice of some early-music specialists and deliver a zippy, quasi-authentic performance on modern instruments, Morlot instead created a stately, rich, and ceremonious opening that ceded to an airy presentation of the first theme. With the strings sounding as transparent and graceful as the somewhat edgy acoustic of Benaroya Hall allowed, Morlot’s warm and loving approach delivered nine minutes of sublime joy.
The subsequent Andante, gentle and genial in its caressing tenderness, paved the way to the lightness and charm of the third movement Menuetto. Once past the noisiest mass page turn I’ve ever heard, the orchestra quickly launched into the joyous Finale. Although its ending was rather flat — “now you hear us, now you don’t” seemed to be Morlot’s response to discovering himself at the score’s final measures — nothing could detract from the smiles that greeted this uplifting conclusion to a remarkable evening of music-making.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.