Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Stunning Perfromance of Grand Romantic Music...

A few seasons ago, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with Music Director Robert Spano programmed two Sibelius Symphonies back-to-back on one program.  By the end of the evening, the bleak Finnish winters and cold landscapes were on overload.  But this weekend, the ASO performed the composer’s Symphony No 1 in E minor, written in 1899.  Here, ASO assistant Conductor Stephen Mulligan was on the podium, and it was like hearing Sibelius for the first time. Hearing one Sibelius symphony by itself reminds one that this was a very polished romantic composer who had the melodic inspiration of a Brahms, yet with more orchestral color; and the emotional inspiration of a Tchaikovsky, yet with greater discipline and structural skill.  The First Symphony is full of gorgeous sounds and inspired passages that reach great and soaring heights, and it does so sparely; one never have a sense that the music of Sibelius could have used an edit.  It also has rhythmic vitality and clever orchestration, for example, the use of the tympani in the final movement to repeat the theme first introduced by the various sections of the orchestra.  It is an emotionally powerful work, but something special happened to it under Mulligan, who has developed quite a reputation locally after his stepping-in at the last minute for an ailing Maestro Spano during last season.  He managed to create a taut and supercharged performance that was neither excessive nor over-the-top, but fully building toward the finale; that is, he never lost the long arc of the music.  Each passage artfully led to the next, so that in the end, all the pieces fell masterfully in place to create a grand superstructure of sound.  This may have been the best performance of the season.  It seemed that whatever Mulligan wanted from the ASO musicians, he received and they were spirited and inspired.  Mulligan has an elegant style of conducting beating clearly with the right hand, and cueing introductions and shaping the music with his right.  Given that he is slightly ahead of the music being played, one can almost anticipate what will happen next just by watching him.   He was first-rate in this glorious piece of music. 

The second work on the program was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, written in 1909.  The soloist was Russian-born Nikolai Lugansky, whose elegance at the piano matched perfectly the elegance of conductor Mulligan.  Lugansky is not prone to histrionics while playing, although on occasion he did jump up a few inches from the bench when extra emphasis was needed.  This piano concerto demands much from a soloist, in part, because it requires spanning many keys at once.  It may not have been a challenge for the large-handed composer, but sometimes it is a stretch (pardon the pun) for other pianists.  No so for Lugansky, who seems also to have been blessed with large hands.  The music itself is a crowd pleaser (Symphony Hall was once again sold out) because it is romantic tuneful, and occasionally dreamy, as in the second movement Intermezzo.  Lugansky played with a great deal of confidence and he has the technical skill and musicality to create a virtuosic performance.  At times, the balance between the orchestra and soloist were a bit off, so that the some of the extended piano passages, as in the first movement, could not be heard over the orchestra.  In all, though, this was a powerful performance of one of the most popular piano concertos in the classical canon. 

See AMC's interview with Maestro Mulligan: 

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