ASO: Henrik Nanasi with David Coucheron

Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was preceded by a wonderful chamber concert programmed by principal harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson. It featured five women composers in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Sadly, aside from one piece a year by Jennifer Higdon, the ASO includes women composers on the obnoxiously long list of groups of composers that it rarely bothers to program for its Delta Classical Series. This concert represented a 500% increase in the number of women composers that series subscribers will hear in Symphony Hall this year. Kudos to Remy Johnson for pushing for this program and shame on the ASO for failing to deliver a meaningful variety of music to its audiences. I can’t think of a single reason that they couldn’t have put one small piece by a different women composer on each week’s program in March. Or, for that matter, one piece by a Black composer each week in February for Black History Month. It’s absurd that concert goers in the 19th century probably had as much or more exposure to women composers than we do now, with artists like Beach, Farrenc, or Smythe being regularly programmed. Aside from a significant number of contemporary composers, we have centuries of works to draw from so there are no shortages of pieces that will fit into any given program. It bugs the crap out of me that, as a regular concert-goer, I hear the same pieces over and over again from the same men from the Classical Music Pale of Settlement between the Rhine and the Volga when there are so many other amazing pieces of work that are ignored just because the (mostly) men who are in charge of programming were all brought up with the same tradition of music education that seems to have its roots in the toxic German nationalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

My little tirade aside, the music, as I said, was wonderful and very well performed. Of the five pieces on the program, four featured piano part transcribed for harp by Remy Johnson. It began with one of C. Schumann’s Romances for Violin and Piano. This was one of two pieces on the program that I’d heard before; in fact, it was the only one that I’ve heard live before, having been performed recently by the Eureka Duo at Agnes Scott. I thought that it sounded even more dreamy with harp taking the place of the piano, though the pizzicato bits on the violin sounded a bit cheapened when presented with the harp for contrast.

Up next was Katherine Hoover’s Variations on Francis Hopkinson’s song My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free from her Dances and Variations for flute and harp. I thought that this was delightfully evocative and quite pretty. It was followed by Augusta Read Thomas’ capricci, Hummingbird Romance, for flute and clarinet, which had its roots more in jazz. It was interesting but I thought that I might enjoy it a bit more if it was brought down an octave or two.

The other piece on the program that I’d heard in the past was an amazing piece by Mary Kouyoumdjian called A Boy with a Makeshift Toy for viola and piano from her series Children of Conflict. Remy Johnson’s arrangement for harp was a distinctly different sound for the piece. I think that the harp stood out more as a partner with the viola in certain parts than as an accompaniment setting the tone for the viola to tell the story. I think that this has more to do with my ear not being used to the idea of the harp as an accompaniment than anything in Remy Johnson’s transcription or performance. That said, it still sounded quite natural and it was just as powerful and moving as any of the performances that I’ve listened to on piano.

The chamber concert concluded with the third movement of Alyssa Morris’ Chrysalis for English horn and piano entitled Butterfly. I actually went looking for a recording that I could listen to online to hear what it would sound like with a piano instead of a harp because the tone colors of the harp and English horn just made so much sense together in this piece. It’s a lovely piece and I love the idea of a life cycle represented by English horn for some reason. I think it’s because it always sounded to me like the adolescent child of a clarinet and a bassoon, which makes it the perfect instrument for a musical coming of age story.

There will be an extended performance of this program on the 24th at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art that I am sad that I won’t be able to attend. It was announced after I had already bought my ticket for Capitol City Opera’s double feature of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost at the Conant Center. The friend who was supposed to go with me to that has already backed out on me, so I’m kind of tempted to skip it in favor of the chamber concert since I’m not a big fan of Puccini.

I honestly didn’t enjoy the full orchestra’s concert for the evening nearly as much as the brief chamber concert before it. Guest conductor Henrik Nanasi’s technique just didn’t suit my tastes. His take on Kodály’s Dances of Galánta had a certain Drama to it, with a capital D, which I don’t think worked well with the piece. I often feel that Kodály’s work is not quite as good as the sum of its parts – I tend to like every part of it more than I like the whole of the piece taken together – but even with that opinion I found that Nanasi’s conducting made it sound a bit kludged together. I also felt that he made Tchaikovsky’s symphony no. 4 sound “Dramatic,” with the scariest of scare-quotes, as he seemed to use exaggerated dynamics to impose his own sense of drama on the piece while somehow managing the ignore the drama that Tchaikovsky actually wrote into the piece.

Between the two, David Coucheron soloed in Conus’ violin concerto. He was good, but Nanasi is one of those conductors who pulls the orchestra too far back when the soloist is playing and the violin solo piece is often clearly composed to have more support from the rest of the musicians. His encore was excellent, though. He brought principal second violin Julianne Lee up to join him for Halvorsen’s Concert Caprice on Norwegian Melodies for 2 violins. The melodies were wonderfully dancy and the two violinists played wonderfully as individuals but also, to my absolute delight, as a duet. I enjoyed it immensely.

Interestingly, the program that was originally announced for the evening in the season brochure featured Ravel, Lalo, and de Falla. I really wish that they’d stuck with that program instead of going back to the Classical Music Pale of Settlement. Looking at a copy of the brochure now, I see that it had TBD listed as the conductor. It’s a shame that they didn’t determine a better conductor and had stuck with the original plan.

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