Mark Gresham | 08 MAR 2019
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented a consistently solid, compelling performance on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall under the baton of guest conductor Henrik Nánási. ASO concertmaster David Coucheron was the featured violin soloist. The program of music by Kodály, Conus and Tchaikovsky will be repeated on Saturday at Symphony Hall. On Thursday on;y at 6:45pm, a pre-concert chamber recital was also presented in advance of the 8pm orchestral concert.
Nánási and the ASO opened with the fabulous “Dances of Galánta” of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. Why ASO audiences don’t get to hear more works by Kodály is unfathomable. Like the Hungarian Dances of Brahms, Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta” are steeped in Romani (Gypsy) influence and character. Even though Kodály sourced his themes from an old Viennese publication, he actually lived for a while in Galánta, in what is now Slovakia, and heard its Gypsy bands first-hand.
“Dances of Galánta” summons forth the spirit of traditional verbunkos music with its slow introduction, a prominent clarinet cadenza played by ASO principal clarinetist Laura Ardan (emulating the tárogató – a wind instrument found in Hungarian and Romanian folk- music). Then a moderately-paced majestic passage, followed by four fast dances. It proved an exhilarating start to the evening.
On a superficial level it would be easy to discount Julius Conus (Yuly Konyus in romanized Russian, Юлий Конюс in the Cyrillic) as a kind of “poor man’s Tchaikovsky” but his Violin Concerto is nonetheless a great platform for the violin soloist. It’s a work that has been championed by no less than iconic violinists Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman. Conus is hardly a household name among the general classical music audience, the Moscow-born violinist and composer, born into a prominent Russian musical family in 1969, is well-admired among the community of violinists – as an historical violinist, certainly; in his role as a composer, essentially for this Violin Concerto, but also for smaller items like his Élégie for violin and piano.
Conus’ Violin Concerto gave ASO concertmaster David Coucheron plenty to showcase in terms of both technique and musical expression, with its richly romantic solo part which was able to sing over (and in-between) a generally fulsome orchestral texture.
The 19-minute concerto’s three sections were played without pause. A robust 55-bar introduction by the orchestra preceded the entry of Coucheron’s solo part in a brief recitative that led into a singing theme in he violin over pianissimo chords. The work then wends its way through alternating passages of singing melody and technical prowess for the violin before reaching the climatic 55-bar written-out cadenza.
No surprise in retrospect that the orchestral introduction and the cadenza are the same length, as where the latter ends and the orchestra re-enters recalled the very same music with which the solo violin first entered early on, before a final Allegro subito section brought the entire to a grand close.
Coucheron returned to the stage for an encore, which he graciously shared with his colleague, ASO principal second violinist Julianne Lee. They played an unaccompanied duet that threatened to outshine the Conus concerto itself: the Concert Caprice on Norwegian Melodies by Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian violinist and composer whose life was contemporaneous with that of Conus.
Coucheron and Lee have performed the Concert Caprice together before, including last May at the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art near Madison, Georgia as part of a concert by the Christiana Quartet. Its back-and-forth energy between the two violinists and strong Norwegian folk-fiddling character made it a live showpiece to cap the concerts first half. As for compositional acumen, I’ll gladly take Halvorsen over Conus any day.
The second half of the program was the familiar favorite of he evening, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. It’s one of those “can’t go wrong” choices in programming, an essential piece of the repertoire that’s frequently performed. The ASO last played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth exactly two years ago, March 9 -11, 2017 with guest conductor Michael Stern, and almost exactly two years before that, in late March 2015, with music director Robert Spano conducting.
As they have with previous performances of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, the ASO ramped it up to deliver the exuberant “thrill ride” that the orchestra’s website promised. (And to deliver such an exciting performance “as advertised” is not a bad thing at all.)
The chamber concert that preceded the ASO’s concert brought its own specific programming interest to the stage: a half dozen works by female composers performed by a half dozen female ASO musicians.
The composers represented were performed in chronological order of birth. Works by Clara Schumann (1937-2018) , Katherine Hoover (1819-1896), Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964), Mary Kouyoumdjian (b. 1983) and Alyssa Morris (b. 1984) were featured, half of them arranged to include harp by ASO principal harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, who assembled the attractive program of music by women.
In addition to harpist Remy Johnson, the performers were cor anglaist Emily Brebach, clarinetist Marci Gurnow, violinist Julianne Lee, violist Jessica Oudin and flutist Christina Smith. ■