ASO: Laura Jackson with Avi Avital

This evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert under the baton of Laura Jackson was novel for a few reasons. First, it featured a mandolinist as the soloist. It’s a fairly quiet instrument to put on the stage of Symphony hall and I’m not aware of a mandolin concerto being programmed since I’ve been attending ASO concerts. Secondly, it featured two concerti instead of the usual one, both featuring mandolinist Avi Avital. Finally, the first three of four pieces on the program featured a slimmed down orchestra. There was one Baroque era piece and one Romantic era piece that adapted Baroque era pieces, both of which included a harpsichord in the orchestration. The third piece for small orchestra was from the 21st century but featured the mandolin, which would be overpowered by a full orchestra.

The concert began with suite 1 from Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.” It was a solid performance with the dances being delightfully dancey and the airs being appropriately airy. The harpsichord came out more clearly than I thought that it would in such a large hall, although I was sitting in the third row so I’m not sure how it might have sounded from the rear of the auditorium.

This was followed by the first concerto of the evening, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Mandolin in C major. Jackson did a good job of balancing the orchestra and Avital’s mandolin. I was impressed with the amplification on Avital’s mandolin: the sole amp was sitting behind him and it sounded like the sound was coming from him. All of the charm of the piece came across very well in the performance.

Avital came back on stage for the concert’s other concerto: Avner Dorman’s Concerto for Mandolin and Strings. The three movements were played without break and segued fairly smoothly into each other. The opening phrase reminded me of half of one of Reich’s phase pieces, fast and repetitive but very thoughtful. It crescendoed from there into a kind of cinematic romp with bursts of drama from the orchestra counterbalanced with more contemplative picking on the mandolin, with more bursts from the orchestra seeming to try to draw the meditation out into something more grand and exciting. In the second movement, it became something kind of like a Turkish dance of some sort, with other instruments accentuating the mandolin parts in clever ways. All of this came back to a recap of the first movement, with the energy slowly draining until nothing was left. It sounded very little like any other mandolin piece I’d ever heard and I suspect that the technique involved wasn’t quite traditional, including at one point retuning while in the middle of playing. Jackson did a great job of holding the silence long enough that it could settle into our minds. It wasn’t exactly melancholy but it still nearly brought me to tears as it came to a close; it’s truly an amazing piece to hear live and this was an excellent performance.

On top of the two concerti, Avital gave us an encore, playing a traditional Bulgarian piece called “Bucimis.” The piece begins slow and tender, with notes picked individually, but gradually builds to something fast and rich. It showed off Avital’s abilities but was also a fairly engaging piece.

After an intermission, the evening concluded with this year’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, the “Pathétique.” It seemed odd at first to hear the full orchestra after the reduced size used for the first three pieces. Jackson made good use of all of the additional musicians, though, producing a solid and dramatic reading of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. All in all, it was a great concert.

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