Sunday, March 16, 2014

Some Major Steps....

This week's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra(ASO) concert was notable for many reasons. The first is that it began with Elgar's "Nimrod" from "The Enigma Variation," which was fitting  a memorial to Douglas Sommer, a long-time member of the ASO bass section, who recently passed away.

For program notes on this concert, go here: this program is notable is that it showcases watershed pieces from the history of music.  It also featured Music Director Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles.

The next piece was the Leibestod from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde."  For AMC this piece is the embodiment of a musical representation of overwhelming passion that results in a final release, but according to the story line for the opera, that release occurs only in death.   The work is familiar today and doesn't sound particularly cutting edge to modern ears, but at its premiere it presented a chordal structure that broke the rules of music up to that time, and some said, led to atonality in music.  The "Tristan chord" is the stuff of legends.  To read more about it, go here:   This performance was conducted by Mr. Runnicles, who is always welcome for his grand interpretations.   Maestro Runnicles spends much of his time with the Berlin Opera so the Wagner suits him well.  That said, AMC felt the horns were a bit too loud at the beginning of the Liebestod.  AMC heard it from both the orchestra section of Symphony Hall and from the loge.  This balance problem was apparent in both.  Otherwise, the passion of the music shined brightly and sharply.  Here is a version of the Liebestod from YouTube (its gets the horn balance right) :

Next was a dual piano version of Ravel's "La Valse, " featuring the piano skills of Messrs Spano and Runnicles.  And much to AMC's delight, there was actual dialogue between Spano and Runnicles providing historical and musical context to the piece.  AMC has long felt, (and advocated on this site) that having musicians address the audience helps to break down a bit the barrier between classical artist and audience. Where else can someone spend two hour with their back to the audience and still receive a standing ovation except in the concert hall?   Runnicles, by the way, has a grand voice.

While "La Valse" is not a ground breaking piece of music it does show how music can represent the destruction of an old way of life and the emergence of a new leaner, meaner, and not-so-elegant new style, i.e., the waltz as a metaphor for a changing world.  The two piano- four hand version brings a hard edge to this music and makes it seem less luxurious than  the full orchestral version.  This performance was a knock out.  Here is a version of the tow piano "La Valse":

Following the piano version, Runnicles led the full orchestral version, where he applied rubato to underscore the point was the waltz had an elegant and grand past but faced a future where things might spin out of control.  AMC's only objection was that the orchestra sounded a bit earth-bound without the lightness that characterize other performances.  Here is "La Valse" conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (who AMC encountered while walking in Salzburg):

The final piece on the program was Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."  This too was played first with piano four hands and followed by the full orchestral version.  AMC's introduction to the Rite" occurred at about age 11 or 12 from a demo LP version of Bernstein's interpretation with the New York Philharmonic.  Since then, there have been innumerable versions, ranging from a performance led by Massimo Freccia with an orchestra simply not up to the task (Santa Cecilia) to a very angular performance led by Antal Dorati with the Minneapolis orchestra.  Given the wealth of recorded performances that AMC has enjoyed, it is startling that Spano's interpretation was one of the best.  AMC is used to Spano providing very competent,  if not necessarily very surprising or insightful interpretations, but his "Rite" was full of rawness and primitiveness. The music calls for a large orchestra so the ASO was augmented with many contract players who did a wonderful job adding their talent to the orchestra.  AMC heard the performance twice.  Thursday night's opener was definitely more raw, especially in the opening where the wood winds had what seemed to be odd balances, but which ultimately gave an even more primitive sound to the music.  Saturday's performance had a few bassoon intonation issues that did not appear on Thursday.  But the ASO sounded better to AMC that it has before. Their were outstanding performances by all sections of the orchestra, but the percussion section, led by Tom Sherwood, was phenomenal.  The eleven bass notes in the second half of the work were imposing and Spano let Sherwood play front-and-center, where other conductors let the contrabasses have more prominence in this passage.  Spano's approach again underscored the primitive nature of the music.   Toward the end of the first half of the piece, the washboard player was also encouraged to "let it rip."  AMC has never before  felt the visceral impact that this simple instrument could have on the music.  Masetro Spano and the ASO gave a monumental performance, and the audience loved it.   Even in musically conservative Atlanta, this great work of art- albeit dissonant and raw- is appreciated!
Here is a version of the "Rite" played by the ASO under former Music director Yoel Levi
( it is much more polite than Spano's version):

AMC cogitated over the giant leap that Stravinsky's music was over what had ever been hear before.  It created a riot at its premiere, but with its creation,  music was freed from the conventions and rules of its past. One can only imagine what it must have been like in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century in Paris, where so much artistic greatness was created and fostered. One need only consider the likes of Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Fokine, Picasso, Braque, the Ballet Russe, to get a sense of what transpired in that magical time in that magical city.

Thanks to all of the musicians, benefactors, patrons and volunteers that made this concert possible.

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