Robert Spano returned to conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this week. The program consisted of:
Rachmaninov- The Bells, for chorus, orchestra and Solo
Salonen- Nyx (an Atlanta Premiere)
Scriabin- The Poem of Ecstasy
This was another exciting ASO program. The oldest piece was written in 1908 (the Poem). Having a concert that included music from only the last two centuries is a treat for those of us who appreciate newer music. But lest we get carried away, we must remember that both Rachmaninov and Scriabin were very late romantics, with the former being an unabashed romantic composer. Scriabin was more avant garde, not only in his music, but also in his inspiration than his one-time classmate and contemporary. Scriabin limited output was something of a mystic while Rachmaninov was something of a depressive, and their music reflects those two paths.
“The Bells” is Rachmaninov’s masterpiece and is a large-scale work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, and has as its text, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. The orchestra is augmented by an expansive percussion section, and an organ, which provides for some particularly chest-ratting pedal notes. The soloists in this performance were two Russian singers and one Israeli of Russian extraction. Tatiana Monogarova is a soprano and she sang the second section titled: “The Mellow Wedding Bells.” She is a statuesque woman with a wonderful voice. She is proof that all opera singers need not be plus-sized. When Ms. Monogarova sat down after her solo, she wrapped herself in her scarf with a very feminine flourish. It didn’t make her a better singer, but it was certainly elegant. Sergey Romanovsky is a tenor who sang the introductory “The Silver Sleigh Bells.” He too has a strong voice that only occasionally was overwhelmed by the orchestra and chorus (more about that later). He is a trim person and is proof that all tenors need not be plus-sized. The final soloist was bass Denis Sedov. He has a wonderful deep voice that did not sound boxy. He is very trim and tall. He looked to be nearly a foot taller than Maestro Spano. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Norman Mackenzie, was in top form for this performance. Their precision is nothing short of amazing- it is if they sing with one voice. Because the chorus is so large, it has a tendency, at times, to overwhelm the soloists and even the orchestra. This may be due to the rather smallish Symphony Hall auditorium, but if so, the size of the chorus should be reduced. Nevertheless, this was a stunning performance that showcased so many of the great ASO instrumentalists. There was no section of the orchestra that performed with less than near perfect precision, ensemble, and intonation.
“Nyx” is a kind of modern tone poem composed by the renowned former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic /composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. This piece was a co-commission of the ASO and other national and international orchestras and organizations. The piece also requires a large orchestra and again showed off the tremendous capabilities of the ASO musicians. It is sometimes difficult to review new works, since it’s often the first chance to hear the music. Structure is more difficult to discern, as well as the overall impact of the piece. There was no doubt, however, that Salonen is a master orchestrator- he knows how to showcase each instrument with music written to its strengths. “Nyx” is a dynamic piece that relentlessly moves forward. It never seems to lose momentum, which did not seem lost on Spano or the orchestra. Fortunately Salonen is not one of those contemporary composers who feel the need to make their music immediately accessible and hummable. This is not a composer who writes “smooth contemporary classical,” which to me is akin to talking about the bland brand of elevator music that has become known as “smooth jazz.” “Nyx” can be melodic, but it also can be gritty and challenging. It was a treat to hear, and the ASO was again on top of its game.
The final piece, The Poem of Ecstasy, is also written for a large orchestra. Scriabin wanted this music to reflect the ecstasy of love, dreams, and art. This is passionate music and it is not difficult to tell when the moments of ecstasy are represented. While it has moments of dissonance, it is still a late romantic composition. Using the classic Stokowski/Houston Symphony Everest recording of The Poem from decades ago, as a reference, I found the ASO/Spano performance to be clearly superior. The Atlanta ensemble is more skilled and Spano’s interpretation seemed to amp up the emotionality of the piece quite a bit. This was a sparkling and rousing performance.
These past two ASO concerts have been outstanding and they highlight some remarkable directions in the orchestra. The first is that the string sections have increased significantly their tonal quality and also their precision. Their phrasing is precise and in unison. These sections are so much improved over the sometimes-ragged performances of just a few years ago. The woodwinds remain one of the strongest sections of the orchestra, and the brass sections have greatly improved also. There is no doubt that Music Director revels in contemporary works. The intensity of his conducting increases when playing newer music and he seems more in control of his forces. He is also to be credited for his support of contemporary music such as “Nyx.”
When I attended the concert, the house was nowhere close to capacity. My guess is that the lack of the easy-listening top ten classical composers kept patrons away. But those who stayed appreciated what they were experiencing and gave repeated curtains calls after the Scriabin, as well as standing ovations after the earlier pieces. These performances deserved those kinds of accolades and it was wonderful to see the audience be so receptive to such a program. The ASO and Spano are taking “Nyx” to Carnegie Hall. New Yorkers are in for a treat.