Matk Gresham | 24 JAN 2020
On Thursday night at Symphony Hall the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance a concert of music by Montgomery, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, and Richard Strauss, led by guest conductor James Gaffigan, with ASO principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione as featured soloist. The program is scheduled to be repeated Saturday night at Symphony Hall and on Sunday afternoon at the Porter Performing Arts center in Covington, Georgia, just under 40 miles east-southeast of southeast of Midtown Atlanta and about a 45 minute drive by expressway if traffic is good
The concert opened with a brief fanfare for string orchestra: Starburst, by 38 year old New York born composer Jessie Montgomery. Written in 2012, this three-minute miniature exhibits neoclassical aspirations, and is pleasant enough, easily accessible to the audience, but didn’t came across as having a “wow” factor to it. It was quickly come and gone, but Gaffigan evidently likes it a lot, since he suggested to the audience that the orchestra repeat it, which they did. It came across the second time in the same way it it did the first; come and gone just as quickly. No harm, no foul. (As a composer, must wonder if Montgomery will get credited with additional performance royalties for the second time through. Just a natural concern of the trade.)
The Symphony No. 1 is not my favorite among Beethoven’s symphonies, but it was my first score to study in the conducting lessons of my youth. As such it continues to hold interest for me, especially the remarkable “Adagio” that opens the first movement. The chord progression in the first four bars was rather striking for its time in terms of starting off a symphony (if I may use the old-fashioned Walter Piston notation of my day: V7/IV IV | V7 VI | V7/V | V ).
But as for the conductor’s craft, one of the key choices posed by the score is what to do with the final four 32nd notes of measure 12, the last before the “Allegro con brio.” Do you treat them as having the duration of each as they are notated in the “Adagio” tempo, or as a pickup to the first note of the “Allegro” section, essentially cutting their duration in half to match the patterns of such pickups found throughout the principal theme, but which does not appear in the pickup to the repeat of the exposition (end of bar 109). Gaffigan, like many conductors, took the latter approach. It’s a small thing, but it affects interpretation whichever way you go with it, but can afford a look into the mind of the conductor in question, if that interests you in the least. If you happen to be looking for a new music director, it;s one of the many small things you might want to notice.
Despite all that, this performance of the First Symphony was, for me, less interesting at its outset but became more engaging as each movement passed, the final movement, somehow coming across as the most enjoyable of the lot, versus the first, in this particular case – usually the other way around. The finale rose to the occasion to be a rather satisfying conclusion to the whole.
To launch the second half of the concert, ASO principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione was soloist for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ pastoral Concerto for Oboe and Strings. The work is lyrical, modal in language,and deceptively easy on the ear. Although the oboe is t featured solo instruments, the music poses technical challenges for the string orchestra as well, and at dynamic levels that are intended to not overwhelm the mostly mellifluous solo oboe part. Therein still lies the difficulties for the conductor. For her part, Tiscione put forth a lovely, expressive performance, but there were a few occasions when Gaffigan allowed the swells of full-bodied string writing to overwhelm Tiscione’s well-piped solo lines. Aside from that shortcoming, it was a lovely, assured performance that was evocative of a pleasant, occasionally nostalgic time in the English countryside.
The concert concluded brilliantly with Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss. The familiar tone poem, last played by the ASO in a subscription concert in 2016, is repertoire every major orchestral musician should have under their belt, regardless of conductor. This taut and energized performance under Gaffigan was the winning cap to the evening, not because it was the biggest and loudest piece, but because it was so well executed and compelling. The concert needed it was a foil to the tameness of the majority of program, as lovely as the Vaughan Williams was.
At 6:45pm in advance of Thursday’s concert only, came one of those wonderful chamber recitals by members of the ASO, in this case four members who also comprise an independent group, the Peachtree String Quartet (violinists Christopher Pulgram and Sissi Zhang, violist Yang Yoon Kim, and cellist Thomas Carpenter). They performed a work which they played in the PSQ winter concert on January 12: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Opus 74. (Read the review of that concert here.)
Suffice it to say that the primary difference was due to location. Heard from the Symphony Hall Stage (where audience’s invited to sit for these chamber recitals), There was much more clarity and definition to the sound Thursday than in Garden Hills Recreation Center, which should naturally be the case since Symphony Hall’s acoustical shell is designed to help the ASO musicians to hear themselves well, even if a few improvements outsold be made in the delivery of that sound out into the hall. It was a delight to hear the work again under these excellent circumstances. ■