The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a fairly conventional program, with the most recently written piece being written in 1896 (Saint-Saens). That's where the conventionality ended.
First though AMC is still getting used to the new stage shell at Symphony Hall. Bass continues to improve, the winds are wonderfully focused, as is the brass. The cellos are still a bit in the background and there is, from time-to-time a bit of a blur over the violins, especially in forte passages. And the solo piano seems almost not to share the same acoustic space as the orchestra. It sounds still a bit distant-even hollow- to AMC's ears. The ASO now uses its new Steinway but this phenomenon seems more of an acoustic issues rather than the instrument itself. It may have to do with how the piano, placed near the front of the stage does not get the full benefit of the reinforcement possible with the new shell. Anyway, it probably doesn't matter much to anyone else's ear but this is what AMC is paid to do.
The guest conductor for this program was Carlo Montanaro, whose name and reputation AMC was unfamiliar. The Tchaikovsky piece (click here for program notes: http://www.atlantasymphony.org/ConcertsAndTickets/Calendar/2013-2014/Montanaro-Roge.aspx) is thrice familiar. It, along with Scheherezade and the 1812 Overture, were the very first classical pieces that AMC heard as a kid. In fact, the Capriccio Italien was on the flip side of the "1812" played by the Minneapolis Symphony (before it became the nearly now defunct Minnesota Orchestra) conducted by Antal Dorati. There was a portion of the record devoted to the technical issues related to recording the cannons, all narrated by music critic and composer Deems Taylor. AMC remembers that Mr. Taylor seems to have loose dentures or some condition that lead to him to sound like he had pebbles in his mouth. Oh wait- maybe he had pebbles in his mouth- but AMC digresses.
So here we have an Italian conductor, and American orchestra, playing a Russian composition about Italy. There is something about the universality of music in all of that. Even after hundreds of hearings, AMC still finds immense pleasure in it. It is vibrant, folksy, yet never looses that Tchaikovsky flair for orchestration and grand finale. Make no mistake, while he was paying homage to the sounds he heard in Italy, it is composed through the lens of Tchaikovsky's Slavic background. Maestro Montanaro and the ASO performed this piece to perfection. Tempi were right on and intonation and ensemble were perfect. Audience members were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in rhythm. It was a great way to start a concert.
Pascal Roget was the soloist in the Saint-Saens. AMC is a bit surprised by the fact that this great French composer isn't heard a bit more in the concert hall. Yes, his music is full of sometimes overblown romanticism, but his music is easily accessible to an audience, and it is full of beautiful passages and melodies. The fifth concerto is both aided by and undermined by these characteristics. Its beauty sometimes looses its focus and the momentum of the piece can get off track. But the Montanaro and Roge duo keep a focus on the overall structure and moved things right along. Mr. Roge is not a flashy performer- he is business-like bending over the keyboard a bit with little full-body animation. Yet what comes out of this fingers is startling. The sound that he coaxed out of the highest notes on the piano were almost like a mallet being struck on a wood block. It was a percussive effect that added spice to the French sauce. His left hand could play a melody while the right was providing wonderful and delicate tracery. The second movement Andante was full of gorgeous sound and Mr. Montanaro coaxed some very controlled pianissimo's from the ASO. Roge did not receive the same kind of approbation that Mr. Hough received last week. But this was intricate and fairly transparent French music in comparison to the bombast of Liszt. AMC prefers the French cuisine. There was, of course, a standing ovation.
So if the Capriccio is familiar, what possibly can be said of Dvorak's "New World) symphony. AMC was anticipating being a bit bored with it, but that was not to be the case. First Mr. Montanaro seemed to inspire the musicians. There was playing in the violins like AMC has not yet heard from the ASO, especially in the final movement, where the first violins are playing a melody and the second violins are playing an undercurrent requiring them to rapidly move their bows up and down to play a note(s) on each string rapidly and repeatedly. This passage was played so accurately and together that it was almost surprising. Mr. Montanaro did not linger the slightest, especially in the largo section of the work. Its not that he rushed it, but that he keep up the momentum of the piece so that it didn't become bogged down in its lushness. As with the French work, he understood the overall structure of the work and realized that it must be heard as a whole, and not just a collection of pretty passages. His interpretation helped AMC to hear this piece with "new ears" and for that AMC is grateful. Again the ASO musicians were outstanding, with hardly a mis-step. There are many new faces in the orchestra this year so it is difficult for AMC to name names. But kudos to the usual suspects (Christina Smith, Laura Ardan, etc.) and to the newcomers (e.g., Stuart Stephenson, the ASO's new Principal Trumpet).
To sum it up- this could have been a boring and "treading water" program but it wasn't. Sometimes guest conductors can light a fire under an orchestra (as did Vasily Petrenko a few years ago) . Mr. Montenaro provided the kindling this year.