I debated whether or not to go to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert last night. I’m still in the mourning period for my mother and, according to tradition, I’m supposed to avoid listening to music. However, doing so was starting to make me feel like a prisoner to my grief and, besides, there are a few other rules that I have set aside due to practical concerns. The concert was very good so I’m glad that I did go.
The first half of the program featured a couple of 20th century pieces, beginning with Knussen’s Two Organa. This is a piece for a large chamber ensemble and featured mostly the principal musicians of each section of the orchestra. Rather than beginning on stage, as is common with an orchestra, the musicians entered from off stage and took a bow in response to audience applause before taking their seats, as is generally done by chamber ensembles. Spano gave an introduction to the work that included an explanation of his personal relationship with the late Oliver Knussen, to whom he dedicated the performance. Knussen passed away the summer before last, which makes me suspect that Spano had wanted to program a piece in his honor at the time and that this season was the first opportunity that presented itself.
The first organum is a bright piece and Spano and the musicians gave a playful and engaging performance of it. In recordings that I’ve heard, the piece has come across a little more dancey and I didn’t hear much of that from this take on it. The other organum is still somewhat playful but I find that it is endowed with more of a sense of mystery or, perhaps, something more like a sense of curiosity. I’m not entirely sure that it was the way it was performed or an artifact of the acoustics resulting from the fact that it was a chamber ensemble sitting entirely upstage, but there seemed to be a bit of gingerliness to this take on the piece that took a little away from my enjoyment of it. That said, I enjoyed it more than enough to spare and thought it was generally a good performance.
Up next was Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Because there was so much setup to be done after the chamber-piece that preceded it, Spano took the time to introduce this work, as well. He seems to have also done work with Lutosławski. While I’m not going into detail about what was said for either piece, Spano’s introductions were very good and I find myself wishing that he’d take a little more time to introduce some of the more contemporary and/or challenging works that he programs; I think that he’s good about sharing his interest in the works he performs and that this could help the audience engage with some of the less conventional pieces.
The Lutosławski was stormy and intelligent, like a giant brain storm. It sounded particularly huge just because of the contrast of the large orchestra against the chamber ensemble from the Knussen. Spano’s approach was sensitive and nuanced even within the large sound.
The concerto for the evening was Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major with Concert Master David Coucheron as soloist. It’s played pretty frequently and I’ve heard it played well and less so but I don’t think that I’ve heard it played quite the way that it was in this particular performance. The approach seemed to reflect the Classical period moreso than the Romantic and I frequently noticed a distinct lack of glissando from the strings. I suspect that Coucheron worked closely with Spano and Associate Concertmaster Justin Bruns implementing this interpretation because it wasn’t just the orchestra or the soloist playing this way and also because the Coucheron’s violin blended so intimately with the rest of the orchestra. I’m not sure that this is what I want out of the piece, but I found it both enjoyable and incredibly interesting and I have to say that, after hearing it so often, it was refreshing to hear someone try something new with it.