Tonight’s ASO concert opened with Blacher’s Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini. I believe that this was the first time that I’d heard the piece. The theme comes from Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 and is presented at first by the concertmaster, is then picked up by the rest of the orchestra, and then the variations begin. The variations were mostly pretty fun, a number of them having a strong jazz influence and sounding very Gershwiny. The musicians played it well under Marc Piollet’s baton and I thought that it served as a good concert opener.
Next, Augustin Hadelich soloed on a very well played and conducted performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Hadelich is a pretty amazing violinist and this concerto is a very good match for him. He displayed both strong technique and a lyrical warmth in his interpretation. Piollet did an excellent job of balancing the orchestra against Hadelich’s violin, never pulling them back too far nor letting them overwhelm the soloist.
I don’t always care about encores, but I really enjoyed Hadelich’s. He gave an amazing performance of Paganini’s Caprice no. 5, which was certainly appropriate to the program. The piece allowed him a chance to show off his masterful bowing technique, flawlessly flitting from note to note across strings.
During intermission, I took advantage of a guest pass to the Delta Sky360 Club to have a drop (and not much more) of wine and a bag of Sun Chips. The place is a nice looking lounge with a variety of different, comfortable-looking seats that, if they ever get enough use to be properly broken in, would be very comfortable. It is decorated with strips of drops from old Alliance Theatre productions. There wasn’t a single other person in there aside from the three people who were working, which made the whole experience kind of lonely and awkward. What really turned me off, though, was the music. The din outside made it hard to tell if it was jazz or show tunes, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of music that I had paid to come and see. The Woodruff Arts Center has its own record label and the ASO has recorded quite a bit on Telarc, so you’d think that they might want to take every opportunity that they could to promote their own product but, apparently, the Woodruff management has an aversion to classical music and don’t believe in catering to the tastes of their own patrons, as was evident in their choice of jazz for the last subscriber appreciation event.
The final piece on the concert was Brahms’ Symphony no. 4. It was well played and well conducted, but I don’t really like the piece. Brahms wrote some wonderful themes into, including one from Bach at the end, but it’s composed in a Classical style but orchestrated for a Romantic orchestra. The result is that the whole thing sounds to me like an over-orchestrated mess.
I’d like to comment on something that I first noticed when I stopped sitting in the balcony some time ago and that has become painfully apparent this season as I’ve started sitting close to the stage: the ASO is a very sloppy looking orchestra. Part of it is that they don’t really have a uniform for the women. When half of your first violins are women who all dress very differently, the men look out of place dressed the same in their waistcoats and tails. The same goes for the cellos (who now sit up front since they seem to have permanently returned to the American seating arrangement). What’s worse, though, is that so many of the players are trying to distinguish themselves in their dress or, even less professional, are wearing reflective adornments, such as watches and wedding bands, onto the stage, which flash light into audience members’ eyes. No two women dress alike and only one or two are in evening-wear of the same level of formality as the men’s uniform. And, really, the men’s dress isn’t uniform, either. I noticed at lest two string players in loafers, some wear patent leather shoes while others wear any of a variety of different finishes on their oxfords. One violinist didn’t wear his waistcoat tonight, which looked sloppy with his sneakers. Another wore reflective cuff-links in his French cuffs while everyone else wore barrel cuffs. Some wear pips, each with a different color and style, while the rest have white, plastic buttons. I can’t really see behind the strings from my current seat, so please don’t think that I’m saying that this isn’t a problem with the other sections.
To put it bluntly, this does not look like a world-class orchestra to me. Some of the local amateur orchestras look more professional. If you’re going to play as an ensemble then you really should dress like an ensemble. It’s time that the musicians and the management get together and decide on a uniform that will suit everyone. Go ahead and ditch the tails: there is no equivalent for the women so it would be better to just go ahead and have everyone in concert black. I promise that dressing in a uniform manner will look even better than dressing in white tie. Just set standards for material, length, cut, and shoe style and make sure that people aren’t wearing watches or jewelry onto the stage. Also, make sure that it is something that your subs can match easily. Symphony Hall — and, really, the Woodruff Arts Center as a whole — is a notoriously drab and unwelcoming looking place, please make sure that what you put on stage makes up for that. Yes, the music is the most important thing about a concert, but how it is presented is also very important and it’s time to stop overlooking it.