Friday, February 20, 2015

Maybe if she had two names....

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), under its Music Director Robert Spano, performed a concert of Romantic pieces written between 1826 and 1868.  This programming was a bit odd for Spano, who usually likes to include something a bit more contemporary.

The program began with Mendelssohn's  Overture to a "Midsummer Night's Dream,"  which was written in 1826, when the composer was in his mid-teens.  It is a sunny piece, replete with references to donkeys braying and the fairies' playing.  In spite of his enormous output, only a few of Mendelssohn' s works, such as the  Violin Concerto, a few of  the Symphonies, and the Octet for Strings, are frequently performed in American concert halls .   His overtures, including  "Midsummer Night's Dream" are thrice familiar concert hall favorites so it is difficult to breathe new life into them. Maestro Spano usually provides solid, if not always innovative,  interpretations and this was one of them.  The piece begins with rapid fingerings in the violins, which introduce Shakespeare's sorcery. At the outset, the ASO strings lacked cohesion, maybe due to warm-up issues.  When this theme reappears, the strings had regained their usual precision and it worked beautifully.  The trumpets and winds also gave polished performances . Save a few intonation problems in the horns, Spano and the entire ASO gave a very satisfying performance. 

Schuman's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor featured Midori as violin soloist. This was the premiere Atlanta performance for this concerto that had to wait some 84 years after its composition to be heard in the concert hall.  This was in part due to Clara Schumann's judgment  that it was a flawed work that too often reflected her husband's declining mental health.  Midori, the uni-named violin soloist,  was a child prodigy who has grown into a Grammy-award winning  violinist.  She made her concert debut at age eleven, at the behest of Zubin Mehta.   According to the program notes, she is now "...recognized as an extraordinary performer, a devoted and gifted educator and an innovative community engagement activist."  Well with that kind of introduction, what could possibly go wrong?    Midori is diminutive and, unfortunately, so is her dynamic range.  There is no doubt of her technical capabilities, but she plays so softly that the orchestra struggles to play piano enough so that she can be heard.  This created other problems, e.g., when the Schumann piece transitions from the solo violin to the full orchestra, the ASO was so loud that it was startling.  Schumann was not a particularly skilled orchestrator and his music sometimes has thick textures where, without expert interpretation, the  inner voices can become lost. This potential for musical turbidity was exaggerated by Spano's approach that did little to bring clarity to the denseness of the music, which created a sonic smear throughout the work. There were also cringe-inducing  intonation problems in the violin and horn duet of the first movement.  Unfortunately these missteps  were highlighted even more as a result of program annotator Ken Meltzer's pre-concert discussion that featured excerpts of a recording that had a robust  solo performance as well as crystalline clarity in the orchestral parts.  The Atlanta audience, usually very enthusiastic  (some might say overly so), had a tepid response to this performance and only called Midori back twice.  The seemingly obligatory Atlanta standing ovation was hardly evident.  
The second half of the concert featured two excerpts from Wagner's "Parsifal"- the Prelude to Act 1 and the "Good Friday Spell."  These works, written in 1882, require full orchestral forces, and have some wonderful passages for the violins and the ASO string section sounded rich and golden.  It was obvious that Maestro Spano also felt more at home in this music.  His tempi were on target and his whole body was invested in the music.  These were fine performances with the ASO musicians responding with all of the skill that they can show when they are at their peak.  Every section of the orchestra delivered their parts with skill and musicality.
The final work was Wagner Prelude to Act I of "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" from 1868.  Maestro Spano's tempi were a bit fast, but this added an important forward thrust of the music.  Other performances heard in Atlanta's Symphony Hall of this work have not enjoyed such urgent tempi and have nearly collapsed under their own weight.   This performance demonstrated that, when motivated,  Spano can lead an exciting  performance that can invigorate even a very familiar concert warhorse. 

Symphony Hall was about sixty percent full. This might be due to the unusually cold Atlanta weather or maybe by the presence of music by Wagner.  Atlantan's are known for their dislike of Wagner as evidenced by their staying away in droves when the local opera company staged one of his works and by the number of patrons who left this performance as the music was playing.  

This concert had some hits and some misses.  But when the ASO is good, it is truly wonderful.   

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