The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under music director Robert Spano, presented its annual “A King Celebration Concert” to honor the work of Martin Luther King. The program included:
Beethoven- Overture to Fidelio
Traditional: “Elijah Rock”
Brahms: “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from “A German Requiem”
Schwanterner: “New Morning for the World,” with Narrator Mayor Kasim Reed
Dvorak: Concerto in B minor for Cello and Orchestra
The Spellman College Glee Club and Morehouse College Glee Club were featured in the Elijah and Brahms. Yo Yo Ma was the cello soloist.
This concert was sold out and broadcast nationwide. It was nothing less than spectacular.
The “Elijah Rock” piece was a show case of the strength of the two Glee Clubs. The agony, outrage, and triumph of the African American experience were portrayed powerfully in this piece. The scream of sopranos was potent and heartfelt. Special kudos goes to Dr. Kevin Johnson for preparing and conducting this piece.
The Brahms German Requiem is a magnificent piece, although some call it old fashioned, I find it spiritually moving and beautiful. It focuses on the sadness of coming to grips with someone’s death and it attempts to provide comfort for those left behind. It does not rely on Christian views of death and the afterlife, but rather Brahms’ own spiritual journey. The performance use a Robert Shaw- developed English translation of Brahms’ lyrics. I found this version to be a bit distracting; I like the mystery provided by hearing it sung in German. The combined Glee Clubs sang without much subtlety, but what they lost in finesse, they made up in strength.
I am not familiar with the work of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Joseph Schwantner. His website describes him as …”one of the most prominent American composers today…” and I will take his word for it. “New Morning” is an orchestral piece with interspersed spoken quotes from Dr. King. The work began with a focus on the xylophone and marimba. I was wary that this would be just one more not-so-memorable composition of modern composers that rely on these two instruments in combination with the tympani. But, the piece was effective and immediately accessible. It is not particularly melodic, but it uses the color of the orchestra to great and powerful effect. Narrating Dr. King’s words was Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed. After each carefully timed (and Spano-cued) quote, the score provided a musical reaction of sorts. The only downside of the performance was the bugaboo of Symphony Hall’s acoustics and their inhospitality to the amplified voice. The magnificent King words were difficult to understand, which blunted their effect. Reed’s somewhat thing voice did not seem to enhance the solemnity of the presentation. But “New Morning” is a great work of tribute to Dr. King.
The second half of the concert was dedicated to Dvorak and YoYo Ma. It is difficult to describe the experience of seeing and hearing Mr. Ma perform. There is no doubt that he is a master, a genius, and a gentleman. I knew that I was hearing a performance that was electric and ecstatic. Ma plays with such deeply felt emotion that his face becomes transformed with ecstasy. I was transfixed by watching and listening to him. He has a proper mix of aggressiveness and lyricism, which is a difficult balance to maintain (one need only refer back to the performance of the Brahms’ Double concerto earlier in the ASO season to realize how a work suffers when a soloist does not achieve this balance). Ma was gracious at the end of the work, in a style that only the most accomplished and assured can pull off. He thanked Maestro Spano, and each of the members of the orchestra who contributed significantly to the performance. He actually walked around the orchestra and individually shook the hands of key performers. He gave special recognition to concertmaster David Coucheron, who played a wonderful duet with Ma during the final movement of the concerto. At the end of the performance, the audience leapt to its collective feet and shouted cheers of thanks. All 1700 patrons knew that they had just witnessed a performance by one of America’s great musicians. It was thrilling. Mr. Ma then took a seat at the rear of the orchestra’s cello section. He joined in the orchestra in playing a magnificent version of “We Shall Overcome,” along with the two Glee Clubs. This version of the protest song began with a plaintive solo by Ma which was eventually joined by the combined forces of the singers and orchestra. More applause followed in honor of the ASO, the singers, and Mr. Ma. This was a concert to be remembered.
It is unfortunate that Symphony Hall does not adequately support the sound of this great orchestra. I noticed that when soloists perform on the portion of the stage where a pit orchestra would play, the sound of their instruments become unfocused and almost “smeared.” In fact, Mr. Ma’s wonderful cello sounded more focused when he sat in the cello section. Here the sound board of his instrument faced the side of the orchestra shell and not directly toward the audience. Its puzzling how this would make it sound better, but from where I was seated, it definitely did. On my drive home, I heard an ASO recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. The recording sounded so much better than an actual ASO concert. My guess is that the recording engineers have found a “sweet spot” for the microphones that picks up a magic combination of direct and reflected sound. This adds warmth to the ASO sound and makes the recordings sound rich. It was a nice reminder of how great this orchestra is.