Friday, March 25, 2011

Near Perfection

“She Has Been Here” by Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866)

The East Wind blows fragrances gently in the air,
Telling me, that you were here.

Here, tears flow, letting you know,
Even if you weren’t told, that I was here.

Beauty or Love, can either remain hidden?
 The scents and breezes make it known,
That she has been here.

Last evening, Robert Spano conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in what for me, was the best concert of the year.  Dawn Upshaw ( was the guest soloist. 

Before I talk about the concert, I must pay tribute to Music Director Spano (   He is an inspired leader and musician.  His passion about music is apparent when he is on the podium- his conducting style is spare, but his facial expressions tell the story of his intensity.  He is adventuresome in programming and has led the ASO to support composers, often called the Atlanta School.    Some of the composers that have been part of this group include  Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis, and Michael Gandolfi.  With Spano conducting, the ASO is often at its best, which can be quite good.  Last evening’s performance demonstrated Spano’s influence and his daring.  He is a great asset to the ASO and is often rumored to be under consideration for major music directorships in the US, most recently for the Boston Symphony, where he has been involved earlier in his career. 

The program began with a fanfare composed by Oswaldo Golijov ( titled “Water and Horse Prelude” commissioned by the ASO to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Mr. Spano’s tenure as Music Director and his partnership with Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles.  This prelude is excerpted from Golijov’s opera “Ainadamor” or the Fountain of Tears.  The piece is short (about 90 seconds) and includes music written for contrabassoon, string basses, and offstage trumpets.  The program note indicates that Jeremy Flowers (, a laptop musician, was also featured.  This is an intriguing piece that I found more satisfying that some of the other preludes written for this commemoration. 
The rest of the program is a wonderful mix of old and new, and for me, it fortunately did not include any music by Mozart, of whom I have become overdosed this year. 

The first piece was Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”) (  Schubert had a wonderful knack for catchy melodies.  The “Unfinished” is one of the most popular staples in concert halls, but for me, it is so beautiful and the themes so successfully developed that I have not tired of hearing it.  The ASO performed admirably, with the strings sounding particularly fine, which is becoming increasingly the norm for the orchestra. 
The second piece was again by Schubert but orchestrated, based on Schubert’s piano accompaniment, by Golijov.  Schubert was known for his songs and this piece, titled “She Was Here”, includes four of them.  They are: “Wayfarer’s Night Song” (written by Goethe, “Lied der Mignon” again by Goethe;  She has Been Here by Friedrich Ruckert (quoted above;) and “Night and Dreams” by van Collin.  All of these poems are very powerful in their lyrical yearnings about deeply felt love.  Golijov preserves the vocal line as Schubert wrote it, but added and Introduction and an Interlude.  The orchestra included the usual complement of instruments with the addition of the basset horn (, tuned glass (a glass goblet that produces musical tones by means of friction and it’s fun to try at home), and suspended crotales (finger cymbals that create a clear, chiming pitch).   This orchestration is very rich and produces sounds not often heard in a concert hall.    Ms. Upshaw was the soloist for this music.  She has a strong voice that is well controlled and always manages to work in conjunction with the orchestra, neither overpowering it or it overpowering her.  This music was stunning.  It is so romantic and intense that it is easy to get lost in, particularly when the poems were available through surtitles.  Schubert had the lyrical knack, and Golijov  truly enhanced it with this transcription and his additions.  Again, I commend Spano for performing this wonderful piece. 

The next work was “Luonnotar” ( by Jan Sibelius.  This is not a frequently played piece and Sibelius ( has been derided for his musical style, particularly that it was late Romantic, even as more adventuresome composers were his contemporaries.  To me, his music is beautiful, lyrical and melodic, and easily accessible.  As treacherous as the music is for the soloist, Upshaw performed it with aplomb.  The ASO again played impressively, with the strings, and the horns (yes, the horns) being particular standouts.

The final piece for the night was Sibelius’ “Fifth Symphony in E-flat Major” (  For me this is thoroughly enjoyable music.  It is melodic and lyrical, yet not reticent to use the full resources of the orchestra.  It is very accessible music and does not make great demands on the listener.  Though Sibelius had not written music for decades, he died while a concert was taking place in Helsinki that featured his Symphony Number 5.  To me, this is a lot better than passing while “Who Let the Dogs Out” plays in the background.  Again, the ASO was in peak form as was Spano. 

This was a wonderful concert and maybe the highlight of the season so far for me.  Mr. Spano is to be commended for being so bold as to combine these all of these pieces in one concert, but that’s what makes variety so spicy. 

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