Conductor Stefan Asbury makes MSO debut leading Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2017.18 Season, Conductor, Guest Artist

A few weeks ago, word raced through professional classical circles: The Milwaukee Symphony needed a replacement conductor who knew György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and was free on Feb. 2-3. But where would they find such a person?

As it turned out, Stefan Asbury, an English conductor with a full slate of European engagements, fit the bill, and he is used to stepping in at the last minute – earlier this season, he performed a similar service for the prestigious Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. This week, he is replacing the MSO’s originally scheduled conductor, Ben Gernon, who was unable to get a visa in time.

The Ligeti concerto was programmed at the request of guest violinist Augustin Hadelich, and the second half of the concert, Beethoven’s Second Symphony, has been heavily promoted by the MSO in recent weeks. But Asbury asked for a change to the opening piece, substituting Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta for the originally scheduled Strauss tone poem Don Juan.

Kodály and Ligeti fit together because they’re both Hungarian, Asbury said, and they both draw on folk material, although in very different fashions. “Ligeti has layers of older material,” Asbury said. “And a lot of folk songs aren’t traditionally tonal. They have modes, but you couldn’t say, ‘This is in C major.’”

A further complexity of the Ligeti, however, is that the concertmaster and principal viola are asked to tune differently from their section-mates, to conform to a natural harmonic series – different from the equal spacing between every tone that Western listeners are now accustomed to. Asbury plans to give a brief explanation to the audience, but in the end, the music has to stand on its own.

Asbury never worked directly with Ligeti, who died in 2006, but he has worked with many people who did and knows the composer’s densely layered techniques well.

This weekend marks Asbury’s debut with the MSO, and speaking a few hours before the first rehearsal, he said that he will be trying to “give them confidence that (the Ligeti) is doable. I know it’s a morass of notes. But I’ll be saying, ‘This is important, don’t worry about that.’” European orchestras generally schedule much more rehearsal time – but the tradeoff, Asbury said, is that American musicians often show up better prepared.

Would it make sense to give less rehearsal time to the Beethoven, since it’s more familiar? “That’s the problem,” Asbury says without missing a beat. “It deserves attention. There’s a danger in ‘we all know how this goes.’ Performers forget that Beethoven was alive once.”

Composers who are alive now help to avert that kind of attitude; Asbury said, “Orchestras can’t limit themselves to the same 60 pieces.” He studied composition himself when he was younger, and was mentored in his early conducting career by British composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, but he has no aspirations in that direction now. Instead, he finds a particular niche in studying and performing new music.

Writing in the South Florida Classical Review in 2016, David Fleshler said of Michael Tippett’s Fourth Symphony, “If anything could make the case for the work, it was this performance. Asbury’s conducting gave the long, one-movement work an overriding sense of structure, as he calibrated volume and intensity.”

How audiences respond to new music, Asbury said, depends on the piece and on the city – “if they treat it as easy background listening, it’s going to be difficult.” Some listeners still rebel against Stravinsky, whose most important works are a century old — but they are also performed often enough that “they’ve become tremendously effective. It’s a matter of familiarity. People have to be open-eared.”

To learn more about this works on this program, read the MSO’s digital program notes here.