ASO: Donald Runnicles with Christina Smith

There were two concerts for which I originally had tickets but did not attend; one of them was canceled due to weather and the other I decided to skip: they had the poor taste to tack some obnoxious gimmicks onto the performance that were created by two artists who clearly would have nothing of interest to say about the music. That would have detracted too much from the music for me to be able to enjoy myself so I figured that I’d exchange the ticket for one of the concerts that I’d originally not planned to attend. As such, even though I wasn’t excited about the program, I found myself at this evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert featuring all French composers under the baton of Donald Runnicles. Of the three pieces on the program, I really only wanted to hear one of them, but that one really made it worth it for me to bother with the trip to Symphony Hall.

The program opened with Debussy’s “Nocturnes.” I like much of Debussy’s work and love quite a bit of it, but I’ve always felt that this one seemed like he thought too much about it. That’s not to say that it’s too cerebral, but more that there’s a certain amount of laborious cognition behind it that makes it feel a bit forced to me. Performed well, it can still be enjoyable, though I’m sorry to say that Runnicles’ reading didn’t meet my standards. It seemed almost as though he were coming at an expressionist through the lens of the overture to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” He honestly seemed a bit off in the first movement, though he found some footing in the marchy parts from the Fêtes and nearly on solid ground in the final movement. It didn’t help that no small percentage of the ASO strings often have difficulty getting good sound from their instruments when playing low and slow, resulting in a lot of creakiness in this work — particularly from the celli. There were also a few musicians on the stage who might have played a little better if they’d looked up at the conductor a little more often or kept a closer ear on their colleagues.

Following this lackluster start, principle flute Christina Smith came out to solo for Jolivet’s flute concerto. As she entered the stage, I overheard no less than three separate people sitting in three different directions from me whisper something along the lines of, “That dress!” One of the things that I love about sitting way too close to the stage is getting a close up view of some of the amazing gowns that women soloists wear. I normally don’t bother to write about them – honestly, I feel awkward about it since even the most extravagantly dressed man doesn’t get to wear anything remotely as interesting, making it feel a bit sexist to comment only on what the women wear – but I love that I wasn’t the only one who was floored by the high-waisted, deep scarlet gown with a lace overlay covered in a pattern of sequins that evoked a magical evening sky. It had a kind of fantastical, but mature, glamorousness to it and Smith wore it well.

Even better than Smith’s dress, though, was her performance. The Jolivet sounds to me like the flute is a bright and clever hero challenging a mob represented by the strings and ultimately bringing them to its side. It’s a great showpiece for the flute, offering a good chance to show off what both the instrument and its musician can do. Smith played it skillfully and brought a great deal of character to the work. At certain points, I might go so far as to say that she brought in a good bit of attitude, as well. She definitely managed to bring me, like the mob of strings, over to her side. If I didn’t like the laborious thought that Debussy imbued in his “Nocturnes,” I did appreciate the greater thought and attention that Runnicles and the strings seemed to put into this piece: they provided a good enough performance to allow Smith to shine.

I’m not particularly fond of the Faure requiem, so I left after intermission. Although I would rather have had the chance to hear the concerts that I originally paid to attend, I’m very glad that I got to go this evening to hear Smith play the Jolivet.

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