Four Minus One Pieces of Excellent Music

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Berg, Ligeti, and Debussy: Gil Shaham (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.2.2015 (BJ)

Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Berg: Violin Concerto
Ligeti: Atmosphères
Debussy: La Mer


Though they may seem to the superficial eye or ear to be unlikely program bedfellows, the musical relationship between Wagner and Debussy (perceptively explored, by the way, in the British composer Robin Holloway’s book Debussy and Wagner) was by no means insubstantial. Much of French music around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th was conceived either under the direct influence of Wagner or out of more or less conscious reaction against it.

 It was an interesting idea, therefore, to put La Mer on the same program as the Lohengrin prelude. Moreover, since Wagner also exerted a profound influence of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and his pupils, the inclusion of Berg’s Violin Concerto was equally appropriate, as was that of Atmosphères, whose obsession with tone-color transformation was surely influenced in its turn by Farben, the third of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces.

 The fact that the grouping of these four works made demonstrably good sense should not be taken to imply that all of them were equally worthy of inclusion. Atmosphères certainly played a crucial role, through its (unauthorized!) worldwide dissemination on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in establishing Ligeti as a name of international prominence. But it has always seemed to me a rather pointless waste of ten minutes, in which nothing of any musical consequence happens. It is a stronger candidate than Ravel’s Boléro for the derisive term that the composer himself drily applied to that too often denigrated jewel of the repertoire: “piece for orchestra without music.”

 That Atmosphères did not rise above so sterile an effect in this performance is by no means to be imputed to any shortcomings in the way it was played, or to the way it was conducted by British-born Robin Ticciati, who was already at the age of 31 making his third appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and demonstrating impressive temperament and technique. Nor should the fact that in the Berg concerto it was sometimes hard to hear soloist Gil Shaham, even when he was visibly playing up a storm, be blamed on either the violinist or the conductor. This was and always is the inevitable consequence of Berg’s often unrestrained scoring, which performers cannot much moderate without destroying the character of the music.

 The more delicate sections of the work, especially the opening with its magical interplay of solo violin and harp, were—like the Lohengrin prelude that had begun the program—beautifully realized, though I did feel toward the end of the concerto that, where Berg’s treatment of a Bach chorale setting was surely aimed at radiance, it sounded instead a trifle lugubrious. For his part, in any case, Gil Shaham is as eloquent and technically secure an exponent of the cruelly taxing solo as any violinist now before the public.

 The afternoon ended with a rousing, indeed often thrilling, performance of La Mer. Ticciati clearly knows this score cold—and that is also the adjective that best describes the way he conducted it, without any inappropriate attempt to inject personal sentiment into this supremely unromantic seascape-without-figures, a piece of nature painting without any softening admixture of human reference. The orchestra’s response to Ticciati’s graceful beat was unfailingly precise and tonally sumptuous, and concertmaster David Kim’s silvery solo was counterpointed by some fine work by timpanist Don Liuzzi and the percussion section that underlined the hard-edged strength of the music.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment