ASO: Robert Spano with Roberto Díaz

Thursday’s program for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began with two pieces that were making their Atlanta debut but, interestingly, had been conducted at their respective world premiers by Robert Spano. The first of these was Alex Turley’s City of Ghosts. The first thing that caught my attention was the diminished string complement: each section had only two musicians with the exception of the solitary double bassist. At first it came across as merely atmospheric, but it quickly became interesting. The strings seemed to be in the background of the piece, with the woodwinds and brass standing out, and occasionally would ease their way to the forefront. At times this was effective, like the strings were apparitions fading in and out of perception, but it often sounded like the dynamics were just off, as though we should have been able to hear the strings more clearly. I’m not entirely sure if this was due to Turley’s intent or a function of the conducting. It’s an interesting piece and reasonably enjoyable but the sense of imbalanced dynamics left me feeling a bit ambivalent towards it.

The second piece was Higdon’s Viola Concerto with Roberto Díaz soloing. During the first movement, I found myself wondering how it won a Grammy. It was slow and dramatic in a sort of campy Bernsteinish way. I thought that this would be the first Higdon piece that I didn’t actually like. The second and final movements made up for it, though: they were more upbeat and fun with a lot more interesting things going on. However, I still wasn’t that into it. Somehow the viola solo part felt like it was transcribed from something written for another instrument, like a bass clarinet or something. The brass and woodwinds sounded a bit overbearing. I kept thinking that I was congested and my hearing distorted because the violins seemed so far in the background but then I’d hear Coucheron playing a part for the concert master and realize that it was how they were playing and not just me.

Since I hadn’t heard the piece before, I wasn’t sure at the time if it was the piece I didn’t like or the way it was being conducted. However, now I’m listening to the recording of Guerrero conducting the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with Díaz and it sounds like a completely different piece. I actually like it a lot: it absolutely sounds like it was written for the viola; the strings sound good; and it doesn’t sound a bit campy. I suppose I could have been in an odd mood or I could have been unconsciously experiencing congestion in my ears, but this makes me lean towards blaming Spano’s conducting for my not being terribly into Turley’s piece, too. Sometimes I suspect that he was ready to retire from the ASO a while ago and spends most of his energy on other projects.

The program concluded with a decent performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. There was nothing exciting about it but nothing particularly off-putting. Overall, the evening’s concert was merely ok for me.  I think the programming was actually pretty good, but the performance just left me wanting.

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