ASO principal conductor Donald Runnicles (credit Jeff Roffman, 2017)

Review: Donald Runnicles leads the ASO in an emotionally dark program

William Ford | 04 NOV 2019

The Romantic period in music is generally said to have been from about 1830 to 1900 (although there were late-blooming Romantic composers even into the 1930s). Music from the Romantic era is probably the most popular in Western Art Music: it’s heavy on emotional and individual expression, colorful, frequently melodic, and less highly structured than its predecessor. Composers from this era were also testing limits and introducing new instruments, sounds, rhythms, orchestral colors, and forms. The tone poem, song cycles, and long-form symphonies were created, for example. Nationalism in music became a major theme. But, like anything, too much of a good thing can lead to excesses, such as overwrought emotional expression, overlong pieces, and even a lack of creativity in the search of individual expression. This, then, brings us to the Saturday concert of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), led by principal guest conductor, Donald Runnicles.

Two of the works, Wagner’s Prelude to Act I and “Good Friday Spell” from Parsifal (1882) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major ( written in the 1880s), are deeply embedded in the Romantic era (the latter was even subtitled by the composer as the “Romantic”) and might even be considered a cornerstone piece of that era. The third work as Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Songs of Farewell, Op. 14, is something of an outlier as it was composed in 1920-21, yet certainly reflects its Romantic heritage.

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The Wagner Prelude is 24-minute long, giving the listener a foretaste of the four and a quarter-hour length of the entire opera, which recounts the legend of the Arthurian knight and his quest for the Holy Grail. Given the topic matter, a listener can anticipate a somber quasi-religious piece, and that is exactly what Wagner delivered. This is serious stuff, void of anything other than absolute religiously-inspired devotion. The ASO musicians delivered a fine performance, save a few bad entrances, and Maestro Runnicles gave his all, but in the end, it was a serious interpretation that was not particularly spiritual or uplifting. It was a deadly serious performance of deadly serious music that seemed deadly long.

Korngold’s Songs had mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor join Runnicles and the ASO. Korngold is often spoken of as a late Romantic composer, but upon careful listening, it is apparent that his orchestrations are part Romantic and part Impressionist. But one thing for sure: he was constantly looking in the rear-view-mirror for inspiration. The four songs are quite lovely, with the third, “So you rise again, moon” being particularly lyrical and melodic. But these songs are dark — they are about the death of loved and of love lost. Based upon the verses of various Romantic-era poets, the Songs include passages, such as:

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree
Moon, so you go again
over the dark valley of unshed tears?
Teach me, teach me not to long for her
to make pale blood run

The unrelentingly despairing lyrics are not really buoyed by Korngold’s brighter style of orchestration; he employs the celeste, which did add a bit of lightness to the score. For her part, O’Connor was magnificent. Her rich golden mezzo-soprano voice was a perfect match for the lyrics and Maestro Runnicles and the ASO provided excellent support.

In Ken Meltzer’s pre-concert talk, he listed the notable conductors who were advocates for Bruckner’s music; they included Wilhelm Furtwangler, Eugen Jochim, and William Steinberg. Of course, this was said in a lecture that also described how there is also resistance, even disdain, for the composer’s music. Bruckner was said to be supremely unconfident, and as a result, he reworked and reworked again this symphony after its premier. Others also got into the act and the ASO performed a version by Robert Haas from 1936.

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The first movement, marked “With motion, not too fast” is the most programmatic of the symphony and depicts, according to Bruckner himself, a bucolic scene incorporating the sun, horses and knights. The composer was an organist, and the music itself has a bellows-like effect, i.e, great swells of music followed by its rapid deflation. The second movement is an andante that ambles along repeating the main theme five times. The third movement, Scherzo, was a replacement for an earlier version which has a hunting theme in the horns that may be the most recognizable of the entire work. The final movement, Finale, picks up the theme of the third movement, and the symphony ends in a blaze of brass.

The symphony lasts for about 65 minutes, and judging by some of the patrons sitting around me, it provided ample opportunity for people to nod off, check their smart watches, and slowly read the names of the ASO musicians in the program book. Bruckner’s music remains a tough sell; he seemed to believe if saying something once was good, saying it ten times was even better.

In sum, this concert was study in dark, thick, emotion-laden Romantic music that was like walking through molasses. While the program was well-played by the ASO, and carefully conducted by Maestro Runnicles, it was a depressing slog. It raises the question of who thought this programming was a good idea and, judging by the number of empty seats at Symphony Hall, many patrons decided to avoid sharing the experience all together. ■

William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and