Music director Robert Spano (center) conducts Michael Gandolfi's "Imaginary Numbers," surrounded by soloists: Elizabeth Tiscione, Laura Ardan, Brice Andrus and Andrew Brady. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

Review: A night of concertos for the Atlanta Symphony

Mark Gresham | 05 APR 2019

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano, performed a concert entirely comprised of three different types of concertos by Gandolfi, Mozart and Bartók, with guest piano soloist Jeremy Denk, and a concertante quartet drawn from ASO principal players. The program will be repeated tonight at Symphony Hall.

The concert opened with Imaginary Numbers by Michael Gandolfi,  which is not intended as a flashy “for the soloist” kind of concerto. Instead, it has characteristics of both a concerto grosso and a sinfonia concertante, which makes it an ensemble piece for the orchestra in which a group of up-front soloists have key leading roles – in this performance, all ASO principal winds: oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, clarinetist Laura Ardan, hornist Brice Andrus and bassoonist Andrew Brady.

Even then, Gandolfi tends to divide the four soloists into two pairs – oboe and clarinet, horn and bassoon. Reflecting this, Tiscione and Ardan stood to the left of Spano’s podium, with Andrus and Brady on the opposite side. Even with that distinction, the soloists were sometimes intentionally immersed in the orchestral texture, sometimes in clear relief against it. Contrapuntal textures and jazz-influenced dancing rhythms permeate the musically interesting, engaging 25-minute work.


Gandolfi is considered one of Spano’s “Atlanta School of Composers.” Imaginary Numbers was commissioned for the ASO and premiered by them in April 2015. Spano and the ASO are scheduled to record the concerto in May.

Pianist Jeremy Denk then joined Spano and the ASO for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 – a textbook example of classical concerto in that a single performer’s technical and musical acumen are on display against an orchestral backdrop. Although now considered one of of Mozart’s masterworks, it was largely ignored after his death until the latter part of the 20th century, when it began to gain acceptance in the same circles as his “brighter” more frequently played piano concertos.

It is a concerto that can be guilefully umbrageous if the performers let it, with its shifts between modes and key centers. Denk’s countered that in the first movement with his lucent, assured entrance and buoyant interplay with the orchestra.

Pianist Jeremy Denk. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

Pianist Jeremy Denk plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. (photo: Jeff Roffman)

The slow Andante second movement was cause for reflection back on the second movement of Gandolfi’s Imaginary Numbers, in that both are a kind of pas-de-deux between musical forces: Gandolfi’s as a dance between the musically playful and mysterious; Mozart’s between the pianist and conductor – with the pianist leading. The rhythmic drive of the concerto’s happy sonata-rondo finale, and Denk’s facile playing, captured and held the listener’s attention to the final bar.

Then came Denk’s surprising encore: the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser, arranged for solo piano by Donald “The Lamb” Lambert. Although he never learned to read music, Lambert was one of the great Harlem stride jazz pianists of the early 20th century. His commercial discography, however, was limited to just four tracks he recorded for the RCA Bluebird label in 1941. All were jazz interpretations of classical tunes. One was the “Pilgrim’s Chorus.” After a slow intro, the raucous take on Wagner’s tune was a hot showpiece for Denk, with its lightning fast left-hand stride and freewheeling melodic lead in the right.*

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The Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók provided a grand conclusion to the evening. One of the essential works of 20th century orchestral repertoire, it’s an exuberant, unusually optimistic work for the composer’s when he wrote it in 1943, a year before his death. Bartók was in poor health, living in a sanitarium in upstate New York. Quite likely its was the commission from Serge Koussevitzky which brightened the composer’s spirits, giving him the wherewithal to compose it.

As the title implies, Concerto for Orchestra gives all of the musicians, in concertante mode, some degree of spotlight. Spano and the ASO gave it a tight, exciting performance to forge a fabulous conclusion to an overall optimistic, assured program.

In advance of the orchestral program, on Thursday only at 6:45pm, was one of the ASO’s pre-concert chamber recitals. Violinists Christopher Pulgram and Sissi Yuqing Zhang, violists Yang Yoon Kim and Julianne Lee and cellist Thomas Carpenter performed Mozart’s String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K 515. In many ways, the Quintet felt closely allied to the Piano Concerto No. 25 that Denk would play, so proved an excellent choice to set up the concert that followed. ■

*Listen to Donald Lambert’s own recording of his Harlem Stride interpretation of Wagner’s “Pilgrim’s Chorus” in the YouTube video below.

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