The San Francisco Symphony’s second program of 2023, heard on Friday, Jan. 20, brought two important orchestral series debuts, of British conductor Robin Ticciati and Russian-born, British-raised violinist Alina Ibragimova. They were here for the SF Symphony premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Violin Concerto, and what a premiere it was.
The composer — who is also a conductor and clarinetist — couldn’t be in San Francisco, so he was represented by a recorded greeting that included some of his own thoughts about the work. Among other things, he mentioned that it’s not a conventionally virtuosic concerto or one where the orchestra and soloist are in conflict. Rather, it’s more about the relationship of the solo violin to the instruments in the orchestra, which he referred to as being “in love with the violin.”
That’s not the only way that the concerto is unconventional. It’s written in one long movement, punctuated by a dramatic pause partway through, requiring great concentration and endurance from the soloist. The violinist plays the opening phrases alone and then never stops until the end of the concerto. The solo part weaves around and through the orchestra in long, sinuous, rhythmically complex phrases.
Moods and harmonies shift slowly, with the orchestra in dialogue with or providing a sonic underlay for the violinist. Sometimes the orchestra, or a solo instrument, echoes a bit of the violin line or completes it, as if picking up a thought in the middle. Among the orchestral soloists, flutist Emma Gerstein and associate principal horn Mark Almond had notable moments. Widmann’s orchestration is often very light and makes use of harmonics and bowing effects in the string sections as well as in the solo part, at times lending the orchestra an eerie beauty.
Where this work falls stylistically is hard to say. It’s emotive, discursive, often dissonant, and also extremely beautiful — arresting and absorbing, a work to hear repeatedly to take in all the nuances. Ibragimova played throughout with a rich, assertive tone, readily audible at all dynamic levels, and with the concentration, passion, and technical prowess that the work demands. On the podium, Ticciati, who is music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, proved to be a careful and unshowy leader, modest and precise in his gestures.
It’s difficult to tell what Ticciati’s interpretive impact on this new and complex work was, but his Mahler was perfectly lovely. He led the composer’s Symphony No. 4 with a modesty parallel to his physical style: straightforward, without exaggeration or interpretive extremes, very much letting the music’s glories speak for themselves. It was a “central” interpretation in the best sense of the word.
What most impressed was the conductor’s sense of the music’s structure; this was marvelously coherent and organic Mahler, with the orchestral sound and musical phrasing beautifully balanced. The players were unusually arranged for Mahler, with the first and second violins massed to the left and the violas on the outer rim to the right with the cellos to the inside. Ticciati brought the woodwinds to the fore, never letting the strings or the comparatively small brass section swamp them.
The long and eloquent slow movement was magnificently played and conducted, emerging as if the whole were, impossibly, a single phrase. The outburst toward the end landed with the shock of an earthquake. In the last movement, Ying Fang joined the orchestra, singing “Das himmlische Leben” (Life in heaven) with few consonants but a mesmerizingly beautiful soprano and idiomatically direct phrasing. Harpist Meredith Clark played the quiet final notes of the work with resonant sound, and Ticciati, rapt, was able to hold off the richly deserved applause for a strikingly long period.