ASO: Ludovic Morlot with Ray Chen

Thursday’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was a good one. The program was made up of four wonderfully mad pieces from the 20th century, composed on either side of WWII. It also featured a less impressive chamber concert before the main performance that I’d have been okay with missing.

The preconcert performance began with Rossini’s duet for cello and double bass in D major. It was well played and there are lovely and sprightly passages that are pretty engaging, but it sounds too much like it was written for cello and violin (or some other combination of higher-range instruments) and then transcribed for cello and bass. It didn’t sound bad but it also didn’t really do anything for my ear that took advantage of the lower tones of the instruments.

This was followed by a suite from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” for bassoon quartet. Again, though well played, it wasn’t really the instrumentation that I’d want for the music. At its best, it sounded like smooth jazz. Mostly, though, it sounded silly.

The final chamber piece was Sarasate’s “Navarra.” I love the piece and they did play it on two violins, as it was written, which was great. Unfortunately, one of the violin soloists’ instrument sounded horribly bright and almost everything that she played on her G string hit my ear in a rather unpleasant manner. It wasn’t horrible but, on a program with two other pieces that weren’t really to my taste, left me wishing that I’d had a more leisurely supper rather than rushing to Symphony Hall for the opportunity to hear the preconcert show.

The main concert began with Bernstein’s Divertimento. This piece sounds to me like a collection of incidental music: the eight movements are pretty dramatic and they’re exceptionally diverse in tone, though they do sound like they’re part of the same work. I liked each individual movement but, taken as a whole, I felt like I was missing something for not having seen the “play” that they’re accompanying. That’s not surprising given that it was telling the story of the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and, by Bernstein’s own admission, was filled with private references. Still I did enjoy hearing it and Ludovic Morlot did a good job of bringing out the dramatic quality of the work while keeping it coherent.

Next we were treated to Ray Chen soloing for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2. This is a beautiful and mad piece and Chen’s playing was mad and beautiful as he sacrificed half a horse’s tail on his bow to bring the work to life. For the most part, Morlot did a good job with the orchestra, but he did seem to pull them back a tad too much here and there while Chen was playing. It wasn’t as bad as those conductors who practically mute the orchestra while the soloist is playing in a concerto, and, as I said, it was just here and there and not throughout the whole work, but I think that a more bold approach would have benefited the piece.

The second half of the program featured two French composers. First was Dutilleux’s “Métaboles,” which was excellent. I don’t believe that I’ve heard the work before, but I loved it. I had this image in my head of a crazy cartoon about the things that grow in a mad biologist’s lab. Morlot and the orchestra handled the piece very well: I don’t know that I’d have been able to appreciate the composition if the orchestra hadn’t been so together or if the tempi were not quite right.

The evening concluded with a strong performance of Ravel’s “La Valse”. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit like this work is overplayed, but this was still a decent way to end the concert. The entire program was slightly mad in different ways and the way that Morlot seemed to push out Ravel’s program for the work made it feel almost like a bow on the conceptual string that ran through the whole concert and tied it all together.

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