The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director, Robert Spano presented a program the first half of which was very good but lacked audience support and a second half that was equally good, but with which the audience was totally enthralled. Go here for the program notes: http://www.atlantasymphony.org/ConcertsAndTickets/Calendar/2013-2014/Carmina-Burana.aspx
The Bartok concerto is a colorful, challenging work, that demonstrates the composers Hungarian roots. It is similar to his other works that reference Hungarian folk music. Superstar Gil Shaham was the soloist. AMC was surprised to see Shaham using a score. The music stand holding the score was maybe two feet off the ground so the artist was often looking down at it. This tended to put the soundboard in a weird position thereby taking the focus off the soloist. Mr. Shaham seemed to enjoy playing the music- he sort of had a smile on his face through out. AMC saw the Rockettes (long story) this week and they had similar plastered smiles. Shaham also seemed to enjoy working with Spano, but its hard to tell if this was artifice. AMC is very familiar with the Bernstein/Stern collaboration from the 1950's (see below). The recording has Stern in the forefront, and the orchestra nicely arrayed in the rear. Bernstein does a masterful job of making Bartok's themes sharp and angular. The Spano/Shaham version simply does not have these tight edges. In some ways, it was more like a romantic-style of playing not necessarily suited to Bartok's time and temperament. Because the large chorus was to fill the stage after the intermission, the orchestra was pushed to the front., just on the edge of the acoustical shell. The same old Symphony Hall bugaboos of hollow and thin sound was apparent. It also left the violin sol a bit unfocused. But, the percussion section benefited from being placed stage left against the shell. This was the first time AMC has heard a chest thumping bass drum at the ASO.
There was polite applause after the Bartok, with a few die-hard Atlantans providing the required SO. AMC believes that even Bartok is too new for Atlanta's delicate sensibilities.
The second half of the concert was taken up with Orff's famously popular cantata "Carmina Burana." This performance was helped by the addition of surtitles. Mr.Spano rarely breaks new ground in his conducting, but he did make a few rhythmic changes that were welcome, especially in the "O Fortuna" introduction. There was a cast of thousands on stage, with the ASO chorus and the Gwinnett Young singers. This may have been the first time the chorus hasn't set off AMC's tinnitus from being too loud. Maybe now symphony hall is more able to handle such large volumes of sound. The soloists were a mixed bag. Kiera Duffy was the weakest. Her voice was thin and she did not bring the acting ability of her male colleagues. Mr. Nmon Ford, baritone, was outstanding. He has a robust voice that held up even in the grand fortes. Tenor Mr. Pannuccio was also very good. Both of the gentleman brought a bit of acting to their roles. Through the use of body position and gesture, they both punctuated their characters. AMC liked this so much more than just having them face the audience and sing. Mr. Pannuccio allowed his voice to crack for a humorous effect and his hands were rather fey. The ASO chorus has top- flight diction and the young singers performed their rather limited parts well.
The ASO has recorded this work twice- once under Robert Shaw and once under Donald Runnicles. The latter, on Telarc, has unfortunate sound. Its level is so low that details are lost and even when playing the CD the rumble is nearly unbearable. The ceiling of Symphony Hall was sporting more microphones that AMC has seen in some time. Maybe ASO management thinks that the third time is a charm. AMC just wants to know "Do we really need another Carmina"? Discuss amongst yourselves.
Thanks to all of the benefactors, patrons, musicians, and volunteers that made this concert possible.
The Bernstein/Stern collaboration: