Robert Spano led the ASO forces Thursday night in Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Verdi's "Quattro pezzi sacri."

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus shine in late-life works by Mozart & Verdi

Mark Gresham | 22 FEB 2019

Thursday’s performance at Symphony Hall by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, led by ASO music director Robert Spano, featured a pair of late-life works by Mozart and Verdi. A repeat performance is scheduled on Saturday at Symphony Hall, but that concert was already entirely sold out before Thursday night’s had even begun.

It may seem a odd to speak of “late Mozart,” given the brevity of his lifespan, but one wonders what masterpieces he would have written had he lived longer. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (nicknamed “Jupiter”) as written only three years before his death, so it nevertheless qualifies de facto as “late” – his longest symphony as well as his last.

Spano and the orchestra give No. 41 a rendering that was at once full-bodied as it was taut and lively. From the outset of the first movement, the music found its groove. The ensemble tapped into just the right momentum to give it the necessary forward energy without excessive speed.

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The first movement employed dramatic contrasts, exemplified the forceful opening tutti bars followed by a hushed, lyrical answer in the strings. The feeling of musical engagement did not let up through the touching Andante cantabile nor the gracefully spirited Minuet. The fourth movement was a example of Mozart’s compositional acumen, using no less than five themed in its course, brilliantly bringing them all together in an exciting contrapuntal coda that ended with conviction on a most unabashedly straightforward set of of C-major chords.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus performing Verdi's "Quattro pezzi sacri."

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus singing Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

The four parts of Giuseppe Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (“Four Sacred Pieces”) were all written as separate works with different intents and purposes over the course of a decade in the composer’s later years. Nevertheless, he allowed his publisher, Casa Ricordi, to issue them together under that single title, and they are often performed together as a cycle, as they were on this occasion, in the order they appear in the octavo.

The set is comprised of an a cappella setting of the “Ave Maria” for mixed chorus, “Stabat Mater” for chorus and orchestra, “Laudi alla Virgine” for four-part women’s chorus, and a “Te Deum” for double chorus and orchestra. The last three of the group were performed together for the first time in 1898 by the Paris Opera, with the “Ave Maria” being the outtake.

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Prior to Thursday’s concert, the ASO forces had not performed the entire Quattro pezzi together in nearly 30 years – the last time being 1990 with William Fred Scott conducting. Even the late Robert Shaw, a former ASO music director, reorded only two of the four, on distinct discs on the Telarc lable: the “Ave Maria” with his Robert Shaw Festival Singers (CD-80656), and the “Te Deum” as the final work on a double CD with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with the Requiem of Hector Berlioz and the “Prologue in the Heavens” from Arrigo Boϊto’s opera, Mefistofele (CD-80656-2).

Thus the time was long overdue for the ASO Chorus to revisit Verdi’s final sacred choral works. The opening “Ave Maria” is the most technically challenging for the chorus – composed as it was using an “enigmatic scale” made up of an unusual sequence of intervals, slightly different in ascending and descending order.

This results some chromatic harmonies and tonal shifts that are treacherous for the chorus, compounded by having to sing them unaccompanied on top of that. While not 100 percent perfect, the ASO Chorus did a quite impressive job of managing the twists and turns, keeping  harmonies in tune and the overall pitch from sagging. Not for the timid, but the kind of work that reminds the careful listener of why the Chorus has its long-standing reputation.

That choral acumen carried all the way through the remainder of the set, concluding with the majestic “Te Deum” which included a brief solo from within the midst of the chorus, well-sung by soprano Amanda Hoffman. While the Quattro pezzi lacks the massive popularity of Verdi’s esteemsed Requiem, it is no less worthy of our regard. ■