Friday, May 20, 2011


The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented its most recent concert under the direction of Robert Spano, the ASO Music Director.  The program began with one of the ten fanfares written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Spano’s tenure.  Written by Robert W. Pound, “Heartening, charged with invented time” was brief and for me came closer to being a real fanfare (i.e., A loud flourish of brass instruments, especially trumpets) than others it in the series.  Pound is part of Spano’s Atlanta School of Composers.  Whether any of these ten pieces will graduate to the repertory remains to be seen of course.

The first piece on the program was Rachmaninov’s “Spring” Cantata for Baritone Solo, Chorus, and orchestra.  This piece was written fairly early on in the composer’s career.  The music often seemed more akin to Impressionism that the composer’s late- Romantic style (to the degree that any of these labels matters), so it seemed more diaphanous than bombastic as is the case with his other works.  Stephen Powell was the Baritone soloist and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus chimed in, so to speak.  The text of the piece is a poem by Nikolai Nekrsov.  According to the ASO program notes, “The poem relates the story of a peasant couple confines to their hut during the harsh winter.  The wife confessed to an affair and the husband contemplates avenging the deed by killing her.  But with the arrival of spring, the husband’s resolve weakens.  He decides to forgive his wife, and allow God to be his judge.”  Some of the lines from the poem include:

“Kill her, kill the traitorous woman! Destroy the evildoer!”  and “Love, while you can still love, Endure while you can still endure, Forgive, while you still can forgive, And let God by your judge!” 

It seems a bit overwrought to me, but it was likely a good fit for Rachmaninov’s depression.  The piece began with what seemed to me to be an uncertain beat.  I have commented elsewhere that at times, in solo or pianissimo passages, the composer seems to wander without a sense of direction, in contrast to when he employs the resources of the full orchestra.  Since I do not know this music well, I cannot tell if the uncertain beginning is a function of the composer, the ASO, or Maestro Spano.  The ASO chorus performed beautifully- I am always amazed at their precision.  Powell has a good voice, and a credible Russian accent.  The ASO performed this rarely heard piece quite capably.

Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Overture and Incidental Music.  This is familiar and delightful music.  The overture, written some years before the rest of the work, is a kind of Cliff’s Notes to the work.  The braying of the donkeyized Nick Bottom is always enjoyable.  The piece concluded with the famous Wedding march.  The ASO was in top form for this work.  The wood winds, which are prominent in this piece, performed at their best.  As I have said before, they may be the strongest section of this talented ensemble.  The French horns, even though receiving special recognition at the end of the piece from Mr. Spano, seem sometimes to slide into notes rather than squarely hitting them at a start of a phrase.  They slid during this piece. 

I admire Mr. Spano’s efforts to bring contemporary works into Symphony Hall.  In his programming for this concert, he included Britten’s not-often-heard  “Spring Symphony” from 1949.  I will call it contemporary since I am at least as old as this work and I am still alive and thus contemporary myself.  There were three soloists, Jessica Rivera (soprano), Kelly O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) and Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor).  In an effort to fully disclose, I must admit that I really, really, really dislike this music.  I usually am a fan of modern music, but this sounded to me like two pieces of music (one choral and one instrumental) that are mashed together without reference to the relevance of one to the other.  Audience members left at intermission (they must have known what they were in for) and several left during the performance.  Yet, at the end, there was that traditional Atlanta standing ovation, so the remaining audience members must have appreciated the work more than me.  I really cannot comment on the adequacy of the performance since my brain shut down about a quarter of the way through the piece.  One final note, Britten said to the piece’s underwriter, Serge, Koussevitsky, that this was “a real symphony” because it have a symphony’s traditional four symphonies.  Alas, saying it is so does not make it so. 

Because the ASO Chorus and Gwinnett Young Singers were on the stage, the orchestra moves forward and portions of it sit on a riser above where a pit orchestra would sit.  In this configuration, Symphony Hall can generate a most noticeable echo, which tends to muddy things up a bit. 

Note to self- avoid Britten’s Spring thing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Another Stellar ASO performance

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert this week was spectacular.  For me, some of the very best music was played before the actual concert itself.  From time to time, the ASO’s Thursday night preconcert event involves having selected audience members on stage seated in the players seats.  Various artists from the symphony then play chamber works by composers who are featured in the mainline concert.  The musicians sit facing those on stage, with their backs to the auditorium.  Seems like a great way to provide intimacy between audience and musician, even in the large Symphony Hall space.  After one of the audience members knocked over a drum shield, which caught every one’s attention, Ken Melzer, the symphony’s annotator, introduced Beethoven’s “Eyeglasses Duo for Viola and Cello.”  The performance was shoddy and full of intonation problems.  Following this argument against intimacy, Melzer introduced Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro for harp, Strings, Flute and Clarinet.”  This is such wonderful music that I hoped that the “Eyeglasses” would not be a harbinger of another under-rehearsed performance.  To my great joy, it was not.  The ASO players were magnificent.  Particular standouts were the flute, viola, and harp.  This music is so beautiful and ethereal that its absence from most concert stages is a loss.  Every time I hear it, I see myself sitting in a Parisian sidewalk cafĂ© in a cool spring morning enjoying the sights.  My fantasy aside, however, the “Introduction” was wonderfully performed.  Kudos to all involved!

The guest conductor for the evening was Kazushi Ono.   I have not heard of Mr. Ono, and I am sure he has also not heard of me.  Every conductor’s bio makes him or her seem like the next Toscanini or Ormandy or Monteaux, but too often that is not the case.  Mr. Ono, however, was impressive.  His right hand, holding a baton, whipped the air like a rapier.  There was no mistaking his beat or his authority.
The program began with Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture”, which is part of his ‘Nature, Life and Love” trilogy of overtures.  It is a lighthearted piece that can be a real showpiece for an orchestra.  The ASO did not disappoint, but Mr. Ono let the trombones get a bit too prominent, at least for me.  Their supporting role was spotlighted to the degree that they overtook the coherence of the work.  The violins sounded smooth and shimmery.  There seems to have been some turnover in the violin personnel, which seems to have enhanced the sections performance.  If this is the case, it is likely attributable to the esteemed ASO concertmaster.  By the way, there were a few audience members who stood and “bravo’d” after the performance.   I found it to be a bit odd for a ten-minute piece, even when well played. 

Next on the program was Beethoven’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major”, with Augustin Hadelich as soloist.  This is one of the great concertos in the musical literature, in such company as those by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.  The first movement is about 25 minutes long; the whole work totals about 40 minutes.  The concerto is notable for the way it integrates the solo violin with the orchestra, where themes are started in one and handed off to the other.  This requires the soloist and the conductor to get the balances between their two instruments correct.  Ono and Hadelich did this very well.  I was a bit concerned about Hadelich’s performance based on the very opening notes of his solo.  He seemed reticent and he did not appear to have the boldness that is required to make the strong statement that the introduction requires.  But as he warmed up, his performance became stronger and he is certainly not short on technical skill.  I found his sound to be a bit cold, however, especially in the higher range.  It’s difficult to know if it’s his playing, his instrument, or Symphony Hall.  Hadelich performed the cadenzas with skill.  This was a great performance and the audience cheered and gave the standard standing ovation that Atlanta audiences seem compelled to provide.  In this case, however, it was deserved.  To reward the patrons, Mr. Hadelich encored with the Paganini Caprice No. 24.  This piece is considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the solo violin and Hadelich performed it admirably.  Given that he is only 26- years old; his performance is even more astonishing. 

The program concluded with Ravel’s Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from “Daphnis and Chloe.” This music is one of the signature pieces from the Impressionist period and it requires a rather large orchestra, incorporating an enhance percussion section, alto flute, and two harps.  Ravel was a brilliant orchestrator and no piece shows off his skill better than this.  The piece was debuted in 1912, as part of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.  Apparently the first performance was less than spectacular.  The orchestral requirements exceeds the resources of even the best ballet orchestra’s and  Ravel had quarrels with the set designers- he wanted a Watteau-like setting, while the designers wanted a more modern stage.  Fokine, the choreographer, had a love-hate relationship with the great impresario Diaghilev, because of the latter’s increasing attention to the volatile prima-dancer Vladimir Nijinsky.   My mind boggles at the hysteria that must have attended the development and performance of this piece.  The ballet never has found a place in the popular repertoire, although Ravel’s music is often heard in the concert hall in three orchestral suites.  The ASO performed two of these.  This is wonderfully diaphanous music that can demonstrate the virtuosity of an orchestra and conductor.  Ono and the Atlantans did justice to the score.  Particular stand outs were the principal clarinetist (Laura Ardan, who never fails to impress), the alto flautist (whose name I do not know), the principal flautist (Christina Smith), the contra-bassoonist (Juan de Gomar), the entire brass section, and the wonderful percussion ensemble.  David Coucheron, the ASO concertmaster, is always a stand out.  His tone is rich and never steely.  His technical skill is incredible and it seems that the orchestra’s sound has improved since his arrival.  (Sometimes I wonder how long he will be content to be part of the ASO and if he will seek a solo career.) 

My only complaint with this performance was how unkind the acoustics of Symphony Hall are to really loud orchestral climaxes, of which “Daphnis” has several.  They are ear splitting and overbearing.  I have noticed this in choral works, and now it is apparent that this is a drawback for other loud orchestral music also.
One final comment- I was surprised how many patrons left after the Beethoven.  They missed a great “Daphnis” and I am not sure why they exited.  This usually doesn’t happen so noticeably in other concerts.  Is Ravel considered too modern?  Was it not worth waiting through the intermission for another 20-minutes of music?  Was it the warm spring night?