ASO music director Robert Spano takes the virtual stage for the orchestra's opening concert for Fall 2020. (screen capture)

ASO’s virtual opening night a musical and media success

Mark Gresham | 3 SEP 2020

On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented the debut viewing of its “re-imagined” fall 2020 virtual season – video concerts that were not live-streamed, so were afforded the creative advantages that come with studio production.

After a half year of the live performing arts industry being shut down, audiences are not only becoming impatient for the return of live concerts and opera, they are also wanting something better than raw video of home concerts live streamed from a cell phone. And the larger institutions can’t afford to do that. The optics, so to speak, don’t work for their market. Also, it is less expensive and less cumbersome these days to put the gear together for a full-fledged “studio” production, as long as you have the space and the technical talent. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has both, in addition to the remarkable centerpiece of the orchestra itself.


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Thursday evening’s video premiere opened with some introductory material, including a brief conversation between ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament and music director Robert Spano, and capped off by a montage of images of musician preparation, underscored with “theme music” of the transition from the Scherzo to the fanfare that opens the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 – a work that was originally scheduled for this opening concert’s program, but which had to be abandoned due to the current logistical limitations imposed by continuing pandemic: it would have been just too many people on stage.

Led by Spano, the concert opened instead with the ebullient Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What viewers got was a robustly present and warm audio, well balanced and rich in detail – as it should be – with good dynamic range. Despite the observable distancing between musicians (best revealed in overhead shots) we got what seemed an excellent sense of ensemble and vibrant rendition. It was, quite frankly, a quality of sound that cannot be readily heard live from the back rows of the Symphony Hall’s Orchestra level, where the overhanging Loge level (first balcony) has a dampening effect on the sound heard in the seats below it. The audio, however feels close to the music making, but still sounds like an orchestra “as a whole” which any good audio recording should do.

Spaced out: The ASO as seen from above in the streamed video -- most of the stage, at least. (video capture)

Spaced out: The ASO as seen from above in the streamed video — most of the stage, at least. (video capture)

The video was also well done. While the switching between cameras did not strictly follow the musical score, it did feel like it fit rather than conflict – some looseness in this regard is probably a good idea, with certain important points in the score coinciding a tightly coordinated switch to a relevant shot which supports the musical structure. I’m sure this will refine as the production of series develops over time.

The same characteristics were likewise true for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, featuring the remarkable violinist Gil Shaham.

Shaham used the Fritz Kreisler cadenzas in his performance, with the addition of a little feature that Beethoven had added to his own transcription of this work into a concerto for piano and orchestra, where at the end of the cadenza in the second movement Beethoven adds a couple of measures of timpani in a back-and-forth with the soloist, just before launching without pause into the final “Rondo” movement.

Robert Spano conducting, Gil Shaham, violin soloist in Beethoven's "Violin Concerto." (screen capture)

Robert Spano conducting, Gil Shaham, violin soloist in Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto.” (screen capture)

Shaham added this timpani feature into the end of Kreisler’s cadenza for the second movement. The music itself in those few measures is easy, but the distance between the violinist and timpanist, therefore the dialogue, can be tricky. Shaham said later in conversation that this ASO performance was the farthest he had ever stood from the timpanist. Nevertheless, the brief moments sounded great, and added a little extra dimension of delight to the transition into the “Rondo.”

This was not the first time the added part for timpani has been heard in an ASO performance of the Violin Concerto. In April 2018, violinist Nicola Benedetti used the cadenzas by Christian Tetzlaff, which are essentially a transcription of Beethoven’s piano cadenzas back to violin. Tetzlaff’s candenza for the second movement also features this novelty. (Matthias Pintscher was guest conductor for that concert.)


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That particular instance aside, it was good to hear in the context of the much-played Kreisler cadenzas, and this particular performance of the Concerto with Shaham. It was the first time Shaham had performed with an orchestra since March. As of this writing, he has since gone on perform other concertos with an orchestra in Paris, France, and will play again in Hanover, Germany, this coming week – both tour stops with limited in-person audiences,

The ASO’s video stream will be available online through 8:00pm this Sunday. Season programming details and ticketing available at atlantasymphony.org


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