Tonight’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was one with a pre-concert chamber recital. I barely made it in time for it, so this was the first time that I didn’t get to sit on stage with the musicians. Instead, I was in my assigned seat, though I didn’t realize it at the time; it just seemed like a good position so I sat there. The acoustics weren’t horrible for the most part: there was really only one piece that suffered a little because of it.
The first piece they played was Arvo Pärt’s string quartet, Frates. It’s a really good piece, but it begins very slowly and softly and playing slow and soft is not easy on any instrument. For strings, it can require more precise bowing than playing incredibly quickly. Unfortunately, the first violinist wasn’t up to the task and had terrible intonation problems until the piece got loud enough for him to get a solid sound out of his instrument. The quartet never really gelled well and, though I love the piece, I felt the overall performance was a rather unpleasant experience.
Michael Kurth’s Sonata for English Horn was next, which was written for and played by Emily Brebach. This isn’t the first time that I heard it and I hope it won’t be the last. The first and last movements are a good bit of funky and fun energy sandwiching two movements made up of rather beautiful bits of melancholy between them. The horn and the piano were a bit muffled where I was sitting, but I still found it to be an enjoyable performance of a delicious piece of music.
The pre-concert concert wrapped up with Franz Hasenöhrl’s orchestration of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks for violin, double-bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The first time that I heard this orchestration I was surprised at how effectively it squeezes the piece into a small ensemble without losing terribly much. This was a good performance, though having the bell of the horn pointed directly at me maybe made it stand out a bit more than it would have if I were sitting in front of the musicians.
The main concert started out with the world premier of Onward by Brian Raphael Nabors, the winner of the 2019 Rapido! Competition. It was such a lush piece and so full of vitality. I had this image in my head – completely unrelated to anything he said in his discussions of it – of a small plant growing out of a seed and spreading and then the growth of a forest wilderness around it. The piece kind of seemed to focus inward and then grow back outward again, and the images in my head did the same: going from specific scenes from within my little wilderness back out to the gestalt of the verdant wild and then back into another specific scene and so on. The orchestration was really rich and he made good use of a variety of techniques to pull different sounds from each section, resulting in something that felt both familiar and new to me at the same time. I most sincerely hope that I get to hear more from him in the future.
This was followed by Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. Spano’s take on it this evening was quite dramatic and the orchestra’s performance was excellent. I thought it fit pretty well with the Nabors piece. I’d have loved it if they’d programmed Kurth’s Everything Lasts Forever to follow: I’m listening to it right now and it seems to fit well. Instead they concluded with Emanuel Ax soloing in Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1, which I’ve said before I find to be long and tedious. It sounds to me like it was written by a committee commissioned by Disney to come up with a piano concerto that sounds like Beethoven but “new” for some movie for tweens featuring a young Orlando Bloom. I realize that Ax is supposed to be amazing, but he never seems to play anything that I can engage with when he comes to town. I decided not to stick around for that and called it a night after the Copeland: with the chamber concert and the quality of the Nabors and Copeland, I feel like I got my money’s worth out of my ticket.