Marguerite Helmers

Milwaukee Symphony Takes on Ligeti

Composer’s eerie music has been used in Kubrick and Scorsese films.

By - Jan 31st, 2018 05:14 pm
Augustin Hadelich, image from Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Augustin Hadelich, image from Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra presents György Ligeti’s violin concerto with Augustin Hadelich as soloist on February 2nd and 3rd. The orchestra has been performing film scores lately. Programming work by a composer made famous by cinema seems apt. Ligeti didn’t write music for film, but his work has been used regularly by directors to elicit an emotional and psychological response in viewers.

An often repeated story is that Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna without the composer’s permission for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (a misunderstanding since explained). After reconciling, the director used Ligeti’s music again in The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Martin Scorsese followed with Shutter Island (2010) and most recently Gareth Edwards borrowed from Ligeti’s Requiem for his film Godzilla (2014).

Perhaps Ligeti has been typecast. Looking at the films that feature his music, it’s easy to detect a pattern. The directors seem to respond to the eerie and ghostly qualities of Ligeti’s early compositions, which he achieved by collecting tone fragments into clusters that Ligeti called micropolyphony, an “impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb.”

The violin concerto will be the least familiar piece in a concert that also includes Dances of Galanta by Ligeti’s fellow Hungarian, Zoltán Kodály, and Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Hadelich has appeared with MSO several times in the past five years, performing concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. This will be a landmark performance of the Ligeti concerto, the first appearance on a Milwaukee Symphony program.

In a 1974 interview with The Guardian, Ligeti said, “I always imagine music visually, in many different colors . . . The first sketches are always drawings.”

Ligeti’s compositions unfold by introducing new elements that can be associated with previous sounds. In a traditional composition, by contrast, listeners can expect what will come next because of conventions of form that announce themes, development, and recapitulation.

A graphic synopsis of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, clearly showing the graphic nature of his tone clusters.

The violin concerto is a late work, and although Ligeti had stepped away from micropolyphony by the 1990s, the technique is still detectable in parts of the composition. The five movements of the concerto are built on brazen competitions between consonance and dissonance, pianissimo and fortissimo, sostenuto and furioso. Intentionally seeking out inaccurate pitches that are both shimmering and jarring, he incorporates the ocarina, recorder, and slide whistle. One violin and one viola are intentionally tuned to different pitches. Gradually shifting groups of sounds in the orchestra set off furious solo passages by the violin. Long lines of melody in the solo violin are echoed in whispers from the alto flute and woodwinds, then starkly punctuated by brass and percussion.

Hadelich has been focusing more and more on twentieth century music. In October 2017, he was named Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year, in part for his performances of the Ligeti concerto. Thomas Adès has written a new cadenza for the concerto which Hadelich premiered on January 25, 2018 with Adès conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hadelich will perform the new cadenza in Milwaukee.

The MSO recently announced a change in conductor with Stefan Asbury, faculty member at Tanglewood and long a proponent of contemporary classical compositions, replacing Ben Gernon.

Performances take place at the Marcus Center on Friday, February 2 at 11:15 a.m. and Saturday, February 3 at 8:00 p.m. Online program notes are available at the MSO website. Tickets may be purchased through the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts by calling 414-273-7206.

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