Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Atlanta Symphony Concert- rising stars and broken eardrums

I went to see and hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last night. When I review the ASO, I feel like such a curmudgeon, but…

Here is the program:

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake Suite
GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1

Hannu Lintu conducted and the soloist was Tai Murray.

Here is the ASO’s blurb about these folks:
Mr. Lintu, a rising young Finnish star, showcases the world’s favorite ballet music from Tchaikovsky’s version of a Russian legend of enchantment, deception, and love triumphant. The all Russian theme continues as the virtuosic sparkle of Ms. Murray — last seen here in a brilliant performance in 2005 — is paired with Glazunov’s perennially popular violin concerto. Shostakovich’s genius first asserted itself in his brilliant First Symphony, composed as a graduation piece at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory.

For every rising star I suppose there may be several that are falling. I am testimony to that. But, Mr. Lintu provide some interpretations that were other worldly, but not in a good way. Atlanta Symphony Hall is terrible, but visually and acoustically. But Mr. Hintu’s interpretation exacerbated the situation. The orchestral balances were so off that some of the music was unrecognizable. For example, in the Danse Hongroise from Swan Lake, the second portion of the piece was so unbalanced that the music sounded almost laughable. In this section, the strings play a melody based on Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of Hungarian music. The brass provides a beat. Well under Mr. Hintu let the brass so overpower the strings that all I could hear was the brass. At this point, the ASO sounded like a German “oom pah” band. Maybe the conductor hears different balances from the podium than I do from the hall, but I thought the concert was for the audience and not the conductor. The hall’s deficiencies should help guide the conductor, but it did not. In addition, the introduction to dance was very slow and unballet-like.

The ASO brass may be technically brilliant, but they seem incapable of subtlety. They always seem to be too loud- I particularly find the trombones to be hard-edged and ungracious. Every time I know that there is a focus on the brass in a piece of music, I cringe. Again, it may be the hall.

The Glazunov concerto may be popular and may have inspired Rosza and Korngold (of movie music fame) but it strikes me as vapid- full of pretty music with little development and structure. One criticism of movie soundtracks is that they often have beautiful sounds, but they are disembodied because they usually have no development- so too with Glazunov. His concerto has three movements and is played without break, which for me, adds to its meandering and unstructured quality. Ms. Murray is a powerhouse player with a big sound. Her pizzicati were strong and could be easily heard against the orchestra. Her intonation was very good and she plays without a lot of body histrionics, so prevalent among soloists. By the way, the concertmistress, who had several solos throughout the concert, played with a very tiny sound. I initially thought that her lack of volume was due to acoustics, but Ms. Murray showed that is not the case. Either Ms. Murray knows how to produce a big sound, or her violin had a mic on it.

The Shostakovich Fist symphony may be his most popular, but it is not his best. His later works, which were written against the backdrop of Soviet oppression, are more powerful. Mr. Hintu’s interpretation was strong, but I was so jaded by the stridency of the sound, that I was looking forward to it being over!

Atlanta audiences are very gracious and dispense standing ovations and “Bravos” quite easily. For me, this concert deserved neither. My ear is still ringing from the trombones.

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