ASO: Donald Runnicles with Kirill Gerstein

Donald Runnicles opened this evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra program with the world premiere of a new piece by Marc Neikrug, “The Unicorn of Atlas Peak.” It is, apparently, named for a mutual acquaintance of Runnicles and Neikrug’s who, it seems, lives on Atlas Peak and may actually be a unicorn…or a guru…or just some dude whom they’ve both made up to hide the real way that they met, which probably involved some kind of scandalous intrigue or another. It began softly, with a kind of forced sense of mystery, and built up to something best described as meh. By the end it was completely uninteresting. It just never seemed to go anywhere nor to express anything meaningful. The parts that I found the most interesting seemed more like sketches of something that needs to be developed at a later time. It was not a strong start to the concert.

Next up was Kirill Gerstein playing the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1. The version of the piece that is played most often (and the only one with which I’ve been familiar) was published posthumously and this, supposedly, was what Tchaikovsky himself would conduct. It seemed to me to be somewhat less dramatic and a lot more melodic. It began a little fast for me and I felt that it sounded a bit too German to me in the way that it was conducted, though I’d have a hard time explaining why. It was played very well but I found it a bit disappointing in part because I have expectations based on the other version of the piece but also, I think, because of this particular interpretation. Although it was played well, I just didn’t feel that it came out sounding so much like Tchaikovsky as, perhaps, what you’d get if Prokofiev were born and raised German and had worked out the score from memory after having heard it while visiting St. Petersburg. I’m not ready to dismiss this version of the work itself based on this performance, but I doubt that a more satisfying interpretation of it would make me like it more than the one with which I’m already familiar.

Gerstein then made my evening by having Runnicles and Neikrug join him at the piano for an encore. Together, they gave an incredibly beautiful performance of Rachmaninov’s Romance in A minor for six hands. It nearly brought me to tears and would have been enough for me to consider it a good evening.

If I wasn’t terribly happy with the first half of the program, Runnicles made up for it with the performance of Shostakovitch’s Symphony no. 10. He brought out every bit of tension, madness, struggle, marvel, and triumph from the piece. I generally think very well of the ASO’s woodwind section and they really shone on this piece. They all really earned their ovation this evening.

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