ASO principal flute Christina Smith takes a bow with conductor Donald Runnicles after performing Leonard Bernstein's "Halil." (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Runnicles leads ASO in winning program of Beethoven, Bernstein

Mark Gresham | 31 MAY 2019

Thursday’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was the first of three in the penultimate week of the orchestra’s 2018- -19 subscription season, the second season of their “LB/LB” festivities, celebrating the birth centennial of American composer Leonard Bernstein and a more generalize celebration of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven as a programming counterweight. This week is one of a few ASO programs which just happened to have music by both composers in the same concert. In this instance, that proved a genuinely winning and well played combination.

It was also a thoroughly satisfying “home team” affair, with ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles leading the orchestra and ASO principal flutist Christina Smith was featured soloist. The concert also acknowledged the impending retirement at season’s end of two long-time veterans of the orchestra, violinist Carol Ramirez and principal horn Brice Andrus, with a brief appearance music director Robert Spano to assist in honoring them at the beginning of the concert’s second half.

  • ASO-2122-CS03 (Ad)
  • ECMSA 2122 ad

Ramirez joined the orchestra in 1974, and retires with 45 years of service. Andrus has been the ASO’s principal horn since joining the orchestra in 1966 while still a student at Georgia State University, for a total of 53 seasons with the orchestra. Both have spouses who are members of the ASO.

The theme of marital love and faithfulness was reflected in the first work on the program: Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, written in 1806 as the second attempt by the composer – despite the number – to write an overture for his opera, Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (“Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”), which was later given another overture in 1808 (known as Leonore Overture No. 1), then composed yet a fourth overture for the opera’s final 1814 version, renamed Fidelio.

ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

In the mid-19th centuryLeonore No. 3 would come to find its way back into performances of Fidelio as an insert between the two scenes of Act II, but also found a place on its own as concert repertoire. It’s not entirely surprising for the work to on this program, as next week the ASO will present a concert version of the entire Fidelio, with Robert Spano conducting, as the season’s grand finale.

Flutist Christina Smith then joined Runnicles and the ASO on stage to perform Ḥalil by Leonard Bernstein.

Ḥalil is the Hebrew word for “pipe” or “flute.” Ir has a special place in ancient Jewish music for worship. The Mishnah – the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions –  prescribes a choir of no fewer than 12 adult Levites as singers, often plus children, and certain numbers of accompanying nevalim (lyres) and kinnorot (harps), and one player of ẓilẓal (cymbals). The ḥalil is always mentioned in only the singular, and was played only on holy days.

This knowledge of sacred tradition was surely with the polymath Bernstein when he composed Ḥalil in honor of Yadin Tanenbauma, young Israeli flutist who was killed at the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and his fallen fellow soldiers.

Christina Smith solos on a unique 14K gold Powell flute in Leonard Bernstein's "Halil." (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Christina Smith solos on a unique 14K gold Powell flute in Leonard Bernstein’s “Ḥalil.”

“I never knew Yadin Tenenbaum, but I know his spirit,” Bernstein is quoted as saying. although formally unlike other works by Bernstein, Ḥalil shares a common spirit human struggle with his darker, more serious works. In his own words: a struggle “involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love and the hope for peace.”

In that light, it is a disturbing kind of nocturne, one of restless, disturbed sleep, built upon dodecaphonic techniques — something with which Bernstein tended to only somewhat dabble at times — and yet leaving the listener feeling a kind of ambigious sense of tonality at the end.

Ḥalil is at once hauntingly lovely and striking composition, beautifully played by Smith and the orchestra of five percussionists, harp, piccolo, alto flute and a small complement of strings. This was the ASO’s first performance of this unique work from Bernstein’s oeuvre.

  • Spivey Hall - Organ Discovery Day
  • Spivey Hall = Jeremy Denk

The flute Smith was playing is itself unique : a solid 14K white gold vintage Powell, handmade in 1950 by Verne Q Powell. Powell referred to it as his “masterpiece,” and it’s only one he made out of white gold. It had only one owner until his death a few years ago. It was sold to a flutist and collector in California, who contacted Smith and generously asked if she would like to play it. She accepted. Recently, the owner made a second offer to sell it to Smith outright, and she plans to purchase it with some help from the ASO.

Retiring ASO players, violinist Carol Ramirez and principal horn Brice Andrus, with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and music director Robert Spano. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Retiring ASO players, violinist Carol Ramirez and principal horn Brice Andrus, with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and music director Robert Spano. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

There was another big delight to come after intermission, a rather splendid performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, especially the first two movement. Fondly known as the “Pastoral Symphony” for its explicitly programmatic content, its five movements depicting the composer’s feelings for the rural countryside, slowing streams, birds (nightingale, quail and cuckoo are even specified in the score), a very realistic buildup of a violent thunderstorm, and after it passes a rustic rondo to joyfully conclude the Symphony. It was one of the most engaging performances of a Beethoven Symphony to grace the Symphony Hall stage in a while. ■

Support for this article comes in part from generous donations to a GoFundMe initiative on behalf of EarRelevant. Show your support for in-depth classical music journalism from this Atlanta-based publication by by making your donation online through GoFundMe.