Pianist Emanuel Ax performs Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Raftermen)

Review: Atlanta Symphony premieres Nabors’ Onward, Emanuel Ax thrills with Brahms

Mark Gresham | 22 NOV 2019

On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Nabors, Copland and Brahms, led by music director Robert Spano and featuring renowned pianist Emanuel Ax. The program will be repeated on Saturday evening at Symphony Hall and again on Sunday in Hodgson Hall on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. It’s the final weekend of subscription concerts for 2019 before a panoply of Holiday concerts kicks after Thanksgiving.

The program opened with the world premiere of Onward by Brian Raphael Nabors. The composer describes the 10-minute work as “an homage to the triumphs and growth we experience along the epic journey of life” and a “soundscape to celebrate the dreams and aspirations that motivate us to become our best selves … depicting the moments of discovery, innovation, and change that continually push us and our world into the future.”


The 10-minute work was commissioned by the Antinori Foundation and Robert Spano and the ASO as part of the grand prize awarded Nabors as national winner of 2019 Rapido! Composition Contest. Another work commissioned by the Rapido! Competition win, “7 Dances,” a chamber work for flute, clarinet and cello,was given its world premiere on Tuesday by the Atlanta Chamber Players, making this a very big week for the Birmingham-based Nabors.

🎧 Read EarRelevant’s recent article about Nabors and listen to his audio interview with John Lemley here.

Onward makes use of a wide palette of orchestral color, inculcating through the use of various extended techniques. One of those that is prominent in the opening, instantly marking the work’s sonic character, is “air beatboxing” by the flutes – essentially “talking” syllables into the mouthpiece to produce percussive, rapid-fire, breathy sounds while fingering the indicated pitches, producing more more “air” than pitch. (“Beatboxing” is a musical technique, found especially in hip-hop, in which the sounds and rhythms of percussion instruments or an electronic drum machine are simulated by using the mouth and voice.)

Even more important is the work’s sense of underlying pulse, which itself may not have always been most prominent amid the contrasting layers of expanded and contracted rhythms, punctuations and effects, but was always underlying the vibrant, complex textures which juxtaposed more speedy figures set against expansive sweeps of long tones.

That pulse is most conspicuously exposed in the final measures of the work by harp and celesta, with dissipating long tones in strings, crossed dynamically by crescendoing bowed vibraphone and crotales, and a final, pitchless, airy sigh passed from the flutes to the trumpets.


The balance of the program was comprised of familiar favorites: Suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Emanuel Ax as soloist. The Copland was a an easy and amiable substitute for another intended world premiere that, it became clear in plenty of time for the printed program, to include the Copland, would not be finished in time: Richard Prior’s Symphony No, 4. Bur the unquestionable audience draw was, of course, Manny Ax playing the Brahms – which also excited Nabors for being on the same program as his Onward.

Ax’s take on the First with Spano and the ASO was a powerful, impactful account, but also in Ax’s seasoned hands was a deliberate, more relaxed performance than a youthful start-up might play. The Adagio second movement held its pace but kept the momentum of the increasingly broad arcs of phrases moving forward. And while the final movement may not have embodied all the raw rambunctiousness of Gypsy dance, it nonetheless did not fail to thrill.

ASO Pre-concert Chamber Recital

On Thursday only at 6:45pm, members of the ASO presented one of their delightful chamber recitals ahead of the main orchestra concert, with musicians and audience both onstage. In brief: violinists Christopher Pulgram and David Dillard, violist Yang Yoon Kim and cellist Thomas Carpenter opened with Fratres by Arvo Pärt. English hornist Emily Brebach and pianist Tim Whitehead performed Michael Kurth’s Sonata for English horn and piano. To conclude, a surprisingly effective transcription of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel for mixed quintet was performed by violinist Olga Shpitko, clarinetist Marci Gurnow, bassoonist Anthony Georgeson, hornist Chelsea McFarland and contrabassist Gloria Allgood.  ■