ASO assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan and pianist Nikolai Lugansky in Thursday's performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Atlanta Symphony thrills with music of Sibelius and Rachmaninoff

Mark Gresham | 15 FEB 2019

A sold-out Symphony Hall was the place to be on Thursday evening, when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan, performed a compelling concert of music by Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, with Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky as featured soloist. The program will be repeated on Saturday evening at Symphony Hall, but like Thursday’s performance that date has been has been completely sold out since early in the week.

Mulligan and the orchestra opened the program with the Symphony No. 1 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Composed on 1899, it was a product of politically explosive times in Finland. Finland had been a somewhat autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire, but the “February Manifesto” of 1899 issued by the Russia Czar severely restricted that autonomy. In the midst of the awakening Finnish patriotism that ensued, Sibelius reacted with several compositions in protest. His Symphony No. 1 was one of them. But it was not until a European tour of the Helsinki Philharmonic in the summer of 1900 that it became the work with which Sibelius achieved his international breakthrough, when he was hailed by the critics as a composer with a fascinating, fresh creative voice.

Stephen Mulligan leads he ASO in the Symphony No. 1 of jean Sibelius.

Stephen Mulligan leads he ASO in the Symphony No. 1 of jean Sibelius. (Credit: Jeff Roffman)

It is a passionate, lively work, audaciously unrestrained in expression. The remarkably original opening, 28 bars of solitary clarinet solo accompanied only by a rumbling roll on one of the timpani, evokes feelings of desolation. Only on the clarinet’s final note does the orchestra enter at a brisk tempo, pushing forward organically with rich body of musical motifs that grasp the listener’s ear, shifting between major and minor modes in the course of its development. The movement closes with a rather curious pair of pizzicato chords in the upper strings, backed by the harp, over the end of a long pedal tone in the lower strings, bassoons and timpani.

The Andante second movement began peacefully then built up in to a real orchestral storm, but ultimately calmed down to return the original peaceful mood. The third, a dance-like scherzo, rolled along solidly, sporting some fugato games in the process. Then in the opening of the Finale, the tune of the solo clarinet introduction from the first movement returned, this time passionate rather than desolate, initiated forte in the strings with punctuation in the lower brass. The movement played out as a kind of fantasia that ends grandly with three crashing chords in the woodwinds, brass and timpani, only to be followed by a swift diminuendo by the timpani plus a pair of pizzicato chords in the strings — alluding to those that concluded the first movement.

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Well known as a brilliant pianist as well as composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 for himself to play during his first tour of the United States. Immensely popular, its solo piano part is also one of the most challenging in the repertoire.

The 46-year-old Lugansky, in his first guest appearance with the ASO, proved himself a pianist of exceptional depth and interpretive ability, with a formidable technique and forthright clarity in his phrasing. For his part, Mulligan was an apt match as conductor working with a soloist. managing the balances well between soloist and orchestra, allowing Lugansky’s solo part room to shine even in the biggest orchestral passages. The combined result was nothing short of thrilling.

Following several well-deserved, thunderous ovations, Lugansky returned to the stage for an encore, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 – the penultimate in the set, and one of the more popular among them. It was a natural choice, as Lugansky recorded all 24 of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes for Harmonia Mundi (HMM902339) with which he signed an exclusive recording contract last year.