The February 6 and 8, 2020 program of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) featured work of J.S. Bach sandwiched between two works by retro-Romantic English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (RVW).
The first piece was RVW’s 1938 “Serenade to Music” for orchestra, chorus and four soloists. This is a gorgeous paean to music, based on a scene from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Like most of RVW’s music, it is lush, thick, and tonal, with little that offends the ear. That is not to say the music is insipid or uninspired; rather it is the epitome of lyrical Romanticism, polished and refined. If Downton Abbey were to come alive and begin humming some music, one might think that it would be an RVW composition. The soloists were generally good. Soprano Maria Valdes has a warm voice that struggles to maintain control in its highest register; Mezzo Sofia Selowsky, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone, Morgan Smith sang with skill. The approximately 50-voice Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus performed consistent with its fine reputation and it served to burnish the sound of the Serenade.
Jumping to the end of the program, the ASO, under Robert Spano, played RVW’s Symphony No. 5. Written in 1943 it is 39 minutes worth of glorious orchestral sounds that are like wrapping one’s ears in warm velvet. RVW did not have the knack for melody as Schubert, Brahms, or Rachmaninoff, but his music hearkens back to French folk music, a technique likely learned from his teacher Maurice Ravel. RVW’s orchestrations are rarely flashy, but never lacking charm. The ASO played magnificently and Spano shaped a most luxurious sound.
The program’s middle work, J. S. Bach’s Cantata 29 “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir,” BWV 29. The four soloists from the RVW “Serenade,” sat on the far left side of the stage. Each had to walk to center stage to sing. A baroque concert organ joined the pared down ASO as did the Chamber Chorus. The first movement Sinfonia is familiar since Bach also used it in his “Partita for Violin.” This was what could be described as a turbid performance. It was like Bach as a Romantic, sounding much like Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions for full orchestra of the master’s lean, elegant music. The Chorus was too large; reducing it by two-thirds might have worked better. Reducing the number of ASO musicians by a third might have made the performance hew a bit closer to the Baroque spirit. Even solo instrumentalists seemed as if they were playing music written a century after Bach lived. The vocal soloists performed well, although tenor Shankle did not seem comfortable singing in the original German. At times, Spano looked as if he was reminded that he was conducting Bach and he tried in short bursts to generate some orchestral energy, but it was not to happen. This was not the ASO’s finest effort. The Symphony Hall audience responded with tepid applause.
The good news, however, is that Atlanta is fortunate to have two really good period orchestras (The New Trinity Baroque, and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra) that play authentically.