This week hasn’t been for me. I mentioned to my hair stylist this morning as I was getting a haircut that if this evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra wasn’t very good then I’d be fine with it because so little else this week has been. Expectations are certainly not everything, but they do have quite an impact. As Lothar Zagrosek began conducting Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, I found my negative attitude quickly shifting. The piece begins soft and sweet with a wonderfully rich undertone. Take a medjool date, slice it lengthwise to remove the seed and then spread a very thin layer of a decent peanut butter across the inside and the taste will have all of the color and body of the beginning of this piece when it is done well. Zagrosek, who was conducting without a score, brought out every subtle thing that I could want out of the piece.
I was ready to enjoy the rest of the evening when the tone of the piece shifted from the calm sea towards the celebration of the prosperity of the journey and the orchestra fell apart a bit thanks to the brass section. It was pretty clear that someone needed to pay a little more attention to the conductor, especially when he signaled the close of the final sustained note.
If the entirety of the piece wasn’t to my liking, enough of it was good that I was still prepared to enjoy the rest of the concert if things went well. Sadly, they didn’t go well. Or, perhaps, they went into a well, which would explain why, for Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Zagrosek was pulling the orchestra back so far. Played well, the orchestra and the soloist blend together smoothly in this concerto. Zagrosek, unfortunately, was not able to strike a good balance, particularly during the first movement, when it sounded like he was hiding the orchestra away in that well whenever Javier Perianes’ fingers touched the piano keys. Perianes’ playing was not to my liking: he was heavy on the pedals and put a color into the piece that would be more appropriate for something more along the lines of the French Impressionists than the music of a German Romantic. (Indeed, he played some Debussy as an encore and the same technique that bugged me in the Schumann finally seemed to find a place.) I seriously wanted to call out to him to take his foot of the sustain pedal during the cadenza. I couldn’t tell if it was Zagrosek or Perianes who made the second movement seem so sluggish. Sweet, delicate parts were played as though they were mournful and when the sound becomes more bold the dynamic shift was so stark that it made it awkward for my ear to grab onto the melody. Even though it wasn’t really painful to listen to, I was still surprisingly grateful when the intermission came.
There are a number of opinions regarding which of Beethoven’s symphonies is the best. Most people would agree that it’s one of the odd numbered ones in the Romantic style, although I think that there are probably no small number of people who have great fondness for his 6th. Regardless, I think that we can all agree that the weakest of his symphonies is Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor. Anyone who has been reading my reviews probably realizes that I seem to have hit my limit for Brahms this season. I figured that if I liked Zagrosek’s conducting in the first half then I’d stick around and just enjoy the final piece on the program as though it were a lesser Beethoven symphony. Unfortunately, Zagrosek didn’t impress me and I didn’t feel like listening to the ASO brass section play more German romanticism if there were going to be trumpeters who don’t watch the conductor so I decided to go home during the intermission. After a snack of some dates with almond butter and then writing this while listening to Shaw and the ASO chorus’ recording of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, I think that it was the right choice.