ASO: Michael Francis with Benjamin Grosvenor

I’m not sure that I agree with the programming for this evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. There were three pieces on the program: Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 2, and Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 5. I feel like either the Copland or the Saint-Saëns could work well enough with the Vaughan Williams, but the three together just seemed off. Even though I love the piece, I wish that they had picked something besides the Copland to start the concert.

Beyond feeling a bit out of place, I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this performance of the Copland. Francis took the dynamics and tempo to extremes: alternatively dragging and rushing, it wasn’t so much that he was being sloppy – indeed, he brought a lot of very intentional focus on the lyricism of the work – he was just misinterpreting the work. He seemed to want to turn a classic piece of Americana into an Impressionist work. Every aspect of the ballet of the piece felt stripped out in favor of trying to wring out some kind of emotive expression from what is really more of a narrative work designed to accompany Graham’s choreography. He mentioned something about the work being, in a certain sense, about finding peace, which I disagree with. I would want him to hear the unabridged version while watching Graham’s choreography before hearing another interpretation of the work from him.

Francis’ conducting was, however, quite appropriate for the next piece. Benjamin Grosvenor joined the orchestra for an excellent performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 2. I really enjoy this piece: the piano makes me think of someone having a conversation with themselves in their own mind. I get a sense of someone mulling over something, occasionally arguing with themselves and occasionally letting their mind wander along a flight of fancy based on each side of the issue that they are trying to consider as they work to come to some kind of decision. Grosvenor played it remarkably well and Francis’ struck the perfect balance between the orchestra and the soloist. It was gorgeous, as was Grosvenor’s encore, which I believe was one of Debussy’s Arabesques.

Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 5 rounded out the evening. Before beginning the performance, Francis gave a listening guide of sorts as an introduction, explaining how the work is about finding peace. It was clear that he had given the work a lot of thought because it was a masterful performance. Francis exposed a rich tapestry of deep feeling within the work that was incredibly moving. The disappointing and out of place Copland aside, this was an incredible concert.

Don’t forget to check out the Atlanta Classical Music Calendar!

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