Mark Gresham | 17 JAN 2020
In its Thursday evening concert at Symphony Hall the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed music by Knussen, Lutosławski and Beethoven, led by music director Robert Spano and featuring the orchestra’s concertmaster, violinist David Coucheron, as soloist. The complete program will be repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, while in a shorter late morning concert on Friday, only the Beethoven was performed.
Oliver Knussen’s Two Organa opened the program. It was the first time the ASO played this pair of miniatures totaling a mere six minutes together, but hardly the audience’s first encounter with the music of late British composer, who died in 2018 at the age of 66. He was a friend of Spano, had guest conducted the ASI a total of five times, the last in 2011, and the orchestra had performed his music on multiple occasions, including the complete Where the Wild Things Are, an operatic collaboration with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, under the composer’s baton.
Two Organa proved a refreshing late 20th-century work (1995), its two parts used 12th-century organum as a creative model, in which slow plainchant forms a foundation for faster melismatic elaboration, but approach it in different ways. The first was originally written for a two-octave music box and involved only the pitches of “white keys” found on a piano. This orchestral version captured that music box effect while expanding both the size and palette of this delightful work. The contrasting second organum made use of the full chromatic scale and in its own linearly winding way was equally charming in effect.
Knussen’s orchestration involved a modest-sized collection of wind instruments, a variety of percussion, harp and keyboards, but only a quintet of strings. The stage was set up to suit this particular orchestration, which meant a majority of chairs and music stands were pushed to the sides to accommodate it. The musicians did not take their seats in advance as the audience gathered, but waited and come onstage together as the concert was about to begin.
Spano spoke to the audience about Knussen before performing Two Organa, then after it as over, as some time was required for the seats and music stands to be moved into place for the full orchestra, he spoke about the next work on the program, Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski.
Like that of Bartok, which the ASO and Spano performed this past October, and Jennifer Higdon, with which they opened the 2019-20 season, rather than having a featured guest soloist Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is a tour de force for the orchestra itself; a showpiece for its various sections. Once again, the ASO demonstrated the depth of its bench, with the rich professionalism of its full body of musicians on show, both their technical skill and range of musical expression. It was am exciting performance.
After intermission came the big draw for the audience, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with concertmaster David Coucheron as soloist. What we got was better than simple excitement: an exceptionally noble performance. In many ways that sprang from choice of tempos. They were on the reserved side, not too fast, which did not diminish perception of Coucheron’s technical acumen one bit, rather it gave breathing room for how it was musically applied. A fellow audience member described Coucheron’s performance and stage presence as “majestic.”
Unhurried, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came across more powerful and convincing than it would played with less reserved tempos that I had wrongly anticipated. Coucheron’s cadenzas felt deep and thoughtful, and fully held the attention. The final movement impressed as fully being the country dance that it should be rather than a sprint across the dance floor that it sometimes is. All to good result in closing a concert that was enjoyable and satisfying overall. ■