ASO: Carlos Kramer with Sheku Kanneh-Mason

I honestly didn’t get much out of last night’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. I found that much of the music on the program sounded either rushed or plodding under guest conductor Carlos Kramer’s baton and odd cuing gestures. It wasn’t completely dry, but it seemed that any expressive nuance was brushed over, making the music sound particularly shallow and uninteresting. The orchestra didn’t sound that great, either: often sounding muddy with one musician or another noticeably coming in late here or early there.

The program opened with Sullivan’s Overture di Ballo. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard Sullivan’s concert works performed live before. I once found a cache of his stuff online and listened to it out of curiosity and felt it was a bit lightweight to hold my attention. While there were moments where I dug the rhythms, I found this piece to a bit…I don’t know how best to put it. Maybe not exactly simplistic but kind of conceptually obvious and bereft cleverness. It also felt a bit rushed in this performance.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was the soloist for Elgar’s cello concerto. He’s only just turned 20 and is famous for having been on Britain’s Got Talent with his siblings then going on to win BBC’s Young Musician of the Year a year later for a performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1. The crowd that he draws in his US performances is probably due to his having performed at a royal wedding last year moreso than either of his other major television appearances. His appearance yesterday evening was very casual, wearing a casual dashiki with black chinos and a pair of plain oxfords with azure socks. The socks happened to go very well with the azure and sky-blue stripes of Kramer’s bow-tie. More conductors should coordinate their ties with the outfits of soloists. Well, I guess if everyone is wearing black and white then they kind of do, though, don’t they? Anyway, that was the most interesting thing about this performance to me. I don’t know if it was because of the tempi driven by the Kramer’s baton or that he still has some developing to do as a musician, but I didn’t find that Kanneh-Mason’s playing had the depth of emotion that we could see expressed in his face as he played. He wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a memorable performance by any measure. He could definitely stand to work on his breath control, being one of those musicians who make audible gasps as they play. I wonder why music teachers aren’t better about training that out of people. Or maybe there’s some trend where it’s actually encouraged?

Kanneh-Mason stuck with the casual aesthetic of his dress with his selection of music for his encore: an arrangement of Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. I’m embarrassed that I had to ask the person next to me what it was: I immediately recognized the melody and could hum along but the lyrics never made it out of the depths of my mind. I think that his casual performance aesthetic – not his playing so much as his appearance, the way that he moves as he plays, and his choice of pop music for his encore – was quite the crowd pleaser. I wish that he’d been paired with a better conductor or had played a more challenging piece in his encore because I honestly feel that I don’t know how well he plays based on this performance.

Kramer ended the program with a lackluster performance of Schumann’s Symphony no. 2. I like this piece – if not the performance – but I really wish that they’d taken the initiative and programmed something that’s performed a little less often. It was that fact that Kanneh-Mason was engaged to solo that sold the tickets for this particular concert rather than the program, so they really could have done anything with the last piece. I’d have been particularly happy if they had kept with UK composers and programmed some Ethel Smyth or Charlotte Bray or any of the other women composers from the UK about whom I know absolutely nothing since nobody seems to want to program them. Hopefully the ASO finds someone with more imagination than Evans Mirageas to be the next VP of artistic planning. And I love Spano, but hopefully the next artistic director is as dedicated to performing the great overlooked works as they are to performing contemporary composers.

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