ASO: Donald Runnicles with Russell Thomas and Kelly O’Connor

There were two novel things about tonight’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The first was that they finally asked people to silence their cell-phones before the concert. They used a modestly witty video featuring some of the musicians to do so. I think that the video will get old after a while and they may want to rethink the tone of it as it sounds somewhat judgmental, but it was still nice that they’re finally showing some awareness that this aspect of audience experience is important enough to comment upon. The other novelty was an introduction by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles to the two pieces on the program, including a small video explaining some of the Japanese instruments whose sounds are reflected in the first piece.

The first piece was Toru Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends on a Pentagonal Garden.” I’m more familiar with Toru Takemitsu’s chamber works and works for solo guitar than his orchestral works, so I was interested to hear this when I saw that it was being programmed. I’ve only heard “A Flock Descends…” on YouTube and that was from looking it up after seeing that it would be on the program for this concert. I find his music to be like a cross between John Cage and Debussey filtered through Japanese sensibilities with beautiful, thoughtful results. Under Runnicle’s baton, there more of a sense of anxiousness in parts where tension builds than I’ve heard in the recordings. It sounded a little more…Romantic, maybe?…at points than I’d have expected. It was a very enjoyable performance, nonetheless.

The highlight of the evening was Runnicles conducting Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” a piece full of exquisite beauty. The soloists were tenor Russell Thomas and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor. Thomas’ voice was clear, expressive, and dead-on: driving the music deep into my heart. O’Connor had excellent intonation and expressiveness but, for all of the beauty of her voice, it was often lacking in volume. She had no problem clearly producing the low notes but she didn’t seem able to project them very well. She is a mezzo-soprano and the piece calls for an alto or, alternatively, a baritone; as much as I like her voice, I have to say that I feel that she was miscast. Runnicles, however, never held the orchestra back, letting the full, rich sound of Mahler come through. It was a truly beautiful performance of the work and I think that we were all moved by it.

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