Mark Gresham | 13 MAR 2020
It’s been 20 years since Yoel Levi stepped down from being music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for only a dozen years, from 1988 to 2000. Before that, Levi spent six years as the assistant of Lorin Maazel and resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, an institution with which the ASO has had long history of good connections over the years. Following his tenure at the ASO he became principal conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic from 2001 to 2007, principal conductor of the Orchestre National d’Ile de France from 2005 until 2012, and is currently chief conductor of the KBS Symphony Orchestra in Seoul, a position he has held since 2014.
Levi’s timely return to the ASO podium on Wednesday for a one-night-only guest appearance marks both that 20-year anniversary of his departure and the larger 75th anniversary celebrations of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra itself.
The original plan was to pair Levi with the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman as an audience-grabbing combination, but due to travel concerns over the COVID-19 contravirus. He was replaced by esteemed violinist Pinchas Zukerman.
The same day as the concert, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The concert was sold out, with choir risers serving as extra seating in the hall, behind the orchestra, and live video of the concert was being streamed not only to the Woodruff Arts Center’s Sifly Piazza, where it was projected onto the face of the Anne Cox Chambers Building for free viewing, but also across multiple internet outlets.
And yet there were a conspicuous number of empty seats inside Symphony Hall. The rest of the assembled audience, however were energized for the concert and did not seem worried. The house took all due and reasonable precautions in managing the tickets, programs and seating with a calm assurance that did not generate alarm. It was all very well handled.
The program opened with Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, in which there was a tightness of ensemble at the beginning that made one immediately take notice, with good expectations for the piece. Those expectations were not thwarted. It was a performance that made the overture far more than an appetizer. It set the high tone for the remainder of the concert.
One could not image a more natural choice than Zukerman to step in the in absence of Perlman. The two have been career-long friends and colleagues and have performed together often over the years. It was Zukerman and pianist Rohan De Silva who joined Perlman in most of his 2018 U.S. tour when pianist pianist Martha Argerich had to withdraw due to health reasons. Zukerman has a generous way of stepping in to help in such as situation, as he did in Wednesday’s concert.
Max Bruch”s Violin Concerto No. 1, a staple of the repertoire, was in many ways the high point of the program. Zukerman played splendidly as did the orchestra. As one prominent ASO patron remarked at intermission, “Have you ever heard the orchestra perform better? No, you haven’t!”
After intermission came Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the “Titan.” It is orth noting that Levi’s final concert as ASO music director also included a Mahler symphony, the Symphony No. 2. Levi recorded both No.1 and No 2 with the ASO for Telarc, released in 2000 and 2002 respectively. There is no doubt that Mahler is one of Levi’s strengths as a conductor, and that was demonstrated again Wednesday night with a performance that was an especially welcome contribution to the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations. ■