Mark Gresham | 29 MAR 2019
Thursday night’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was an excellent example of solid symphonic repertoire played with convincing assurance. Music director Robert Spano led the orchestra in music by Beethoven and Schumann, with a trio of guest soloists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York: British violinist Daniel Hope and cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. The program was repeated Friday at Symphony Hall, but tonight the ASO will perform it at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts in Savannah as part of the 2019 Savannah Music Festival
Spano and the ASO made a bold opening with Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for which the composer wrote a body incidental music. Hope, Finckel and Wu then joined Spano and the orchestra for Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra – familiarly known as the “Triple Concerto.”
It’s not the first time the ASO has paired the Egmont Overture with his Triple Concerto. They did so in May of 2013 with Donald Runnicles conducting and a trio of ASO musicians as the featured soloists: concertmaster David Coucheron, then-principal cellist Christopher Rex and music director Robert Spano in a rare appearance as pianist.
The Triple Concerto is a problematic work for both performers and critics. For the performers, there are some serious balance issues to contend with, for example. For critics, there is on the one hand a broad consensus that the Triple is the least among all the composer’s concertos, yet there are others who charge that it is grossly underrated. Frankly speaking, the solo parts are just not that compelling. However, its place in the repertoire is bolstered by one simple fact: for a hundred years it was “the” triple concerto. There simply was no competition, nothing comparable of note in the whole 19th century. If you wanted to play a concerto for violin, cello, piano and orchestra, it was Beethoven or naught.
There have been triple concertos written in the 20th century, but not many: those of Casella, Martinů, Tcherepnin and Zwilich come to mind, as well as one 21st century work, the 10-minute Serenade by pianist-composer Lera Auerbach. While any of those might be more interesting, Beethoven’s is the easiest to program due to sheer familiarity. Busy musicians who already know it can put it together with relative speed, and if taken on the road, as the ASO is doing tonight, the name “Beethoven” – let’s be honest – makes presenters more confident of potential ticket sales.
In this instance, the performance was rather good, but still not something to make the audience leap suddenly from their seats. The blame falls less on the performers than on the work itself. I’d have rather heard Martinů, for example, if for no other reason than simply the chance to hear it performed live.
The three soloists returned to the stage for an encore: the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio E-flat Major, Op. 1 No.1, the music with which Beethoven made his Vienna debut at the home of Prince Lichnowsky. This was one of those occasional, if rare, instances where the encore was a lot more exciting and appealing than the concerto it followed.
The concert concluded with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring Symphony”), that composer’s first orchestral composition. Although it did not bring with it the same intimacy of delight as the encore, it was the overall musical culmination of the evening.
The ASO had last performed the Spring Symphony on Groundhog Day in 2017 with guest conductor Jun Märkl at the helm. In Thursday’s concert, under Spano’s baton, it again felt like a “metaphorical spring of the heart in full bloom” – if I may quote from my own 2017 review – but with a more robust feeling of vernal optimism. ■