Mark Gresham | 10 MAY 2019
Thursday’s concert by the Ma href=”http://www.atlantasymphony.org” target=”_blank”>Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano, was as much final preparations for recording sessions as it was concert. The program featured repeat performances of Richard Prior’s …of shadow and light… (incantations for orchestra) (2013) and James Oliverio’s DYNASTY: Double Timpani Concerto (2011), both of which had received world premieres by the ASO with Spano conducting. It closed with Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5.
The program will be repeated Saturday night, but in between the two concerts the works by Prior and Oliverio are being recorded for future CD release on ASO media, along with Michael Gandolfi’s concerto grosso, Imaginary Numbers, which Spano and the ASO performed in early April – also a reprise. Prior and Oliverio were present for Thursday’s concert, of course, and took their ovation bows, but Gandolfi was also in the audience, having come from Boston for the recording sessions.
Prior’s tone poem, …of shadow and light…, was first on the program. The work embraces a wide range of emotional expression over its 15-minute course, through its secure but colorful orchestration as much as its continual transformation of its principal motifs, at times gushing in its larger romantic sentiments. Prior’s experience as an orchestral conductor is surely an asset to which that can be attributed.
Brothers Mark and Paul Yancich were the duo timpanists for Oliverio’s Double Timpani Concerto. Mark Yancich is the principal timpanist for the ASO, while Paul Yancich is principal timpanist for the Cleveland Orchestra – and before that preceded brother Mark as the ASO’s timpanist.
It was at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where the brothers studied with Cloyd Duff, timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra, that they forged a friendship with fellow student and composer James Oliverio. Oliverio wrote a piece for Paul’s senior recital which proved the beginning of a long creative relationship between the three that culminated in the Double Timpani Concerto.
The concert’s solo timpani parts avoid non-standard techniques, preferring to exploit the complete range of common performance practice and its available colors, with an emphasis on the melodic capabilities of the timpani as much as its rhythmic, percussive ones.
One might easily make the false assumption that the placement of kettledrums up front would be overly loud versus the orchestra, but that is not the case, for two reasons: first, all percussion possess an exceptionally wide dynamic range and can play pianissimo as easily as any other instruments; second, positioning the timpani downstage on the apron, in front of the proscenium, the sound is not as amplified and thrown forward as when they are upstage at the back of the shell. Pleased in front, their sound goes up and out in all directions. So the balance of forces is good, though in loud passages the timpanists are challenged in sheer volume by the brass, who have the power advantage of the acoustical shell on their side.
Another unusual feature of the scoring of the Double Timpani Concerto is that each timpanist has a companion harpist nearby, likewise in front of the orchestra, which makes for an intriguing interplay of the instruments’ timbres.
Of the five movements, it is worth mentioning that the third is for the timpani duo only. The fourth begins and ends with French horn, symbolizing a Yancich family legacy: Mark and Paul’s father and uncle were both professional horn players, and their mother also played the horn. Moreover, the brothers are the fourth generation of professional musicians in the family – earning the concerto’s “Dynasty” moniker.
It is the fifth, final movement that really makes the piece. At its climax, without the orchestra, a shared accelerando leads to a pair of cadenzas for each timpanist, followed by an exchange between the two where together the impression is as if one player were executing a melodic passage on all 10 kettledrums, before the orchestra joined back in for a lively run to the concerto’s emphatic tutti conclusion.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was my childhood introduction to classical music, and quickly came to represent what was meant by the terms. The same is true for many of the public: its “dih-dih-dih-daaah” four-note opening theme is the indisputable audio avatar for classical music in American popular culture.
That first encounter with Beethoven’s Fifth came in the form of an old 10-inch vinyl disc, two movements per side, played on a clunky institutional “suitcase” phonograph that was evidently designed to eat records. As a pre-schooler, I played that recording of the Fifth over and over – it was the only recording I possessed that was not a 45 rpm single intended for children. One memorable example among them was “The Blue Tail Fly” – the kind of song foisted upon kids with all sorts of warm, folksy intent, sporting a sleeve with colorful illustrations that would be instantly banned in today’s more socially sensitive era.
It was clear to me, even in those very young years, that the cheerful Burl Ives-like voice and plunking on the “Blue Tail Fly” single held none of the intrigue for me in my young years as did Beethoven’s towering orchestral edifice. Both, however, became ear worms. The impact of Beethoven, fortunately, outlived his faux-rural American competitor.
Such early-life impressions stick in the mind, for better or for worse, becoming yardsticks for later-life expectations. It’s easy to let a piece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to become a warhorse that’s trotted out and put through familiar paces without giving it some fresh insights to consider each time its played.
Thursday’s performance did not sound well-worn, with Spano trying to put a personal stamp on different elements of it that are somewhat afield from my own more old-fashioned, long-held expectations. No long pauses after opening’s infamous fermatas; instead their cutoffs being the downbeat of the next measure, for one example of an approach that is valid but with which I still have a hard time feeling comfortable.
At the same time, because it is so “pull it out of your pocket” well-known, it also felt like it wasn’t given quite the same degree of rehearsal time and attention as the Prior and Oliverio pieces – justifiable in that those were the pieces to be recorded, and recordings tend not to forgive. Perhaps that was some of the reasoning behind programming the Beethoven: such a canonical piece does allow for the possibility for kind of shift in balance of rehearsal time and focus to other pieces.
Whether that speculation is true, what we got was an exuberant, energized Fifth Symphony versus a more stately, finessed one – earnest but absent some desirable finer detail. Spano conducted the last time the ASO performed it on a subscription concert, while the orchestra was still in rehab after a traumatic nine weeks of lockout by management. In that concert, it took the orchestra until halfway through the middle of the finale to find its groove, which they carried all the rest of the way to the final bar. This time the circumstances were different. What was delivered to the audience was hardly nitty-gritty, but it succeeded primarily because of its burly verve and con brio posture rather than polished sheen. ■