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.