ASO: Robert Spano with Jean-Yves Thibaudet

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra started it’s new year at the beginning of the second day of Rosh Hashana. The program had a few things about it that set it apart from previous season openers of which I’ve been aware. Particularly of interest to me was that the only piece to have been composed prior to the 20th century was the Star Spangled Banner. The Damrosch arrangement has traditionally begun each new season, as it did this year, but they also added a second, new arrangement by ASO Bassist Michael Kurth to begin the second half of the program.

After the first performance of the national anthem, Spano led the orchestra in Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” with Jean-Yves Thibaudet soloing on piano. This is a wonderfully expressive piece, beginning softly and sweetly and passing through a wide range of sensations. I always have heard a sort of exhaustion expressed in the opening, though I felt that there was more of a timidness in this reading, which was neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Thibaudet was very in line with orchestra and played wonderfully, particularly in the more jazzy sections. Interestingly, he played with the score in front of him (and a page turner beside him). His blue, patterned dinner jacket would have worked better with lighter pants for contrast along with a crimson shirt and cordovan brogues; it kind of clashed with the all-black outfit underneath it. However this oddity was quickly forgotten once he began playing.

Executive director Barlaiment waited until after intermission to give her welcome speech, which seemed to do more to introduce the rest of the program than the rest of the season. We were then treated to Kurth’s arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner. Well, maybe it wasn’t so much a treat as an occurrence. It was somewhat cacophonous and not in a good way. I’m not entirely sure if some of that was the fault of the performers or if Kurth was trying to capture some of the character of the contemporary socio-political situation. It had this driving, boogy-woogy groove behind it that just didn’t work, and the melody seemed to be sort of pushing its way through a troubled sea of noise, although this description might make it seem more interesting that sounded. Honestly, though, I think that the Star Spangled Banner is an awful song and should be replaced by ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ as our national anthem. Aside from getting its tune from a rather unpleasant song written for a gentleman’s club devoted to the Greek poet Anacreon, who was known for his drinking songs, our current national anthem takes its lyrics from a poem about the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. It was one of the more successful battles for the American forces but still resulted in a retreat. The war was, itself, a bit of an embarrassment in that we failed to obtain any of our objectives, had our capital sacked and burned, and ultimately we ended up suing for peace. What’s more, this was all fought against the bit of the British military that the UK felt they could spare to protect Canada while the rest of its military was engaged in the Napoleonic War. So, yeah, it was not exactly the thing that I’d think best memorialized in our national anthem.

More enjoyable than Kurth’s take on the Star Spangled Banner was his symphony, “A Thousand Words.” This was a much better performance of the work than the last time I heard it played – the intonation was much clearer and smoother and the grooves much more groovy – and I think that it paired very well with the Bernstein that preceded it. From the long, slow crescendo that makes up the first movement on through the introspective third movement, it feels like the music is leading the listener through a single dream with rather varied subject matter. The fourth movement lost me just a little this time, though. It has this mid-20th century cinematic heroic feel to it that I wasn’t really in the mood for. And if the subject matter of the first three movements was varied, the fourth movement was all over the place. It still tries to tie back into the dream of the first three movements, it does so in a manner kind of like waking up and trying to go back to sleep and reenter a dream: you get some threads of the original dream but it ultimately ends up being it’s own thing. In a sense, it felt like it was from a separate piece and I think that I might enjoy the fourth movement more by itself more than presented with the first three. In fact, I found myself thinking towards the end that the musical ideas of the fourth movement would make great seeds for a concerto for a woodwind instrument or, perhaps, a double concerto contrasting the voices of a trumpet and a clarinet.

The program closed with a version of Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” edited by Mark Clague. It was more jazzy and, just because it was less familiar, I found myself more interested in it than I would have been the more commonly performed score. I think, however, that if I were to hear it often enough that it lost its novelty then I’d probably prefer the more familiar version. I know that I definitely prefer the more common tuning of the car horns: authenticity is not always the best thing. It was a good performance of it and it was definitely enjoyable to walk out with the jazzy themes from the piece running through my head. Overall, it was a well programmed and performed concert and if the rest of the season comes out as well as this did then it will be a good and sweet new year, indeed.

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