There were two premieres at this week's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. The first was the Atlanta debut of conductor John Storgards. The second was the first Atlanta performance of Carl Nielsen's "Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands" written in 1927. Both were winners.
Carl Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1865 and he died in 1931. Even though he survived into nearly one-third of the 20th century, this piece, in spite of occasional dissonances, seems to be firmly planted in the 19th century. It is supposed to depict a trip to the Faroe Islands, which are located halfway between Norway and Iceland. It begins with repetitive figures in the low strings and, about two-thirds into the piece, it gradually gains momentum and considerable volume. At its peak, it features all of the force of the orchestra, which the ASO musicians handled quite nicely. It concludes with another piano section. Finnish-born Storgards demonstrated his attention to dynamic details, which were indicated, in part, by his conducting style. He did not seem to hesitate in cuing the various sections of the orchestra or in telegraphing his desires for how loud they should be playing. It certainly seemed to work as this was a nuanced performance. AMC has never quite understood why Nielsen does not appear more in American concert halls, even in spite of the Wikipedia entry that proclaims that Nielsen has now firmly entered the international repertoire. AMC guesses that "firmly" is the tricky word in this declaration.
The next work was Chopin's Second Piano Concerto written in 1829-30. The soloist was Brazilian-born pianist Ingrid Fliter. In AMC's opinion, Chopin was not at his best when writing for orchestra, and that certainly can be said about this piece. The piano writing requires the technical skill that characterizes most of Chopin's piano works, but the orchestral parts are lackluster and not particularly interesting. The first and third movements of the work are full of pianistic bombast and only the second movement enables the soloist to show some delicacy. Nevertheless Ms. Fliter was astounding. She is obviously up to the technical requirements of the work, but she also should interpretive subtlety that was quite nice. In the second movement larghetto she showed great sensitivity. At the end of the piece, the audience leapt to its collective feet, even faster than in the usual obligatory Atlanta standing ovation. She was recalled four times and rewarded with audience with an encore of a piece by fellow Brazilian Alberto Ginastera. It was a dazzling piece that again brought the audience to its feet. This was an auspicious debut for Ms. Fliter, who seemed to have established a good relationship with Maestro Storgards.
The final work was Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, written in 1907. The last performance of this work was in 2012 under the direction of Vasily Petrenko, the Russian-born conductor who is currently the conductor of the royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Petrenko's performance with the ASO was a benchmark for how this great orchestra can sound- well- great. Storgard's leadership also created a grand performance. This symphony is an hour of unabashedly romantic music that is full of memorable themes and flashy orchestration. The ASO was certainly up to the challenge. Never has AMC heard the horns play more beautifully and the trombones continue to maintain their high standards. This work also has some extended passages for the tuba, and it was played stunningly here. And the flute and woodwind playing was simply gorgeous. The lower strings were similarly strong. The violins were good, although there were a few ensemble problems especially in the second movement. AMC would also have liked a bit more warmth from the strings also. Storgards keep everything under control and again, he seemed focused on dynamics and entrances, both of which are a good thing. This was a great performance, and based on it alone, Storgards should be welcomed back to the ASO podium.
There were many younger patrons last evening. That's a good thing, and it would be even better if they paid for the tickets! But if any were first time concert-goers, they were treated to the very best that the ASO can do.
One last note- the personnel of the orchestra sees to change constantly, maybe as a result of reducing it to 77 full-time positions in the last contract negotiations. Because of that AMC doesn't feel comfortable calling out individual players, especially when AMC can't see the full orchestra from his seat. So far, the orchestra continues to perform well, and one hopes it will continue.