Mark Gresham | 14 JUN 2019
Dark overcast skies looked and threatened, but it did not rain on the thousands gathered for Wednesday evening’s concerts at Piedmont Park by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. Temperatures had turned cooler than they had been in previous days, and there was a light but persistent wind, making it a more comfortable experience, but just enough for the the musicians’ music to have to be clipped to their stands – a small price to pay in exchange for the more moderate temperatures. Rather than present pops programming, both orchestras performed engaging classical selections.
The presence of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra was an entirely new feature of the ASO’s Piedmont Park concerts, something that had been planned for almost a year in advance. Current ASYO members and recently graduated alumni were attired in “ASO blue” t-shirts made especially for the occasion. Even ASO assistant conductor and ASYO music director Stephen Mulligan sported one under his dark suit coat. (Someone needs to gift Mulligan with a white summer concert jacket!)
Beginning at 6:30pm, Mulligan and the ASYO performed the rollicking Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 of George Enescu, excerpts from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Rossini’s William Tell Overture. As if Providence approved, the sun shone briefly through the clouds at the end of William Tell. (Annuit cœptis, ASYO!)
After a brief intermission, music director Robert Spano and the ASO took the stage for their 7:30pm portion of the programs. They opened with the luminous Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidis, followed by Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville, which Spano introduced to the audience as “The Rabbit of Seville” – a reference that would not be understood by most persons under Spano’s age, but immediately grasped by those of an older generation: The Warner Brother’s animated shorts tarring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, created over Rossini’s music. It’s a genre of classic cartooning that was popular in its heyday, introducing a wide public to classical music, but which seems, alas, no longer emulated in our current century.
Then came Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the apex of the ASO’s serious classical selections for the evening. Spano encouraged the audience to relax and feel free to applaud between movements in this casual outdoor setting, which they did enthusiastically.
For the finale, John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, Spano handed the baton over to Benjamin Brunt, an executive with Noble Investment Group, LL and a board member of the ASO, but also a former professional violinist who spent two years as a member of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Brunt led the famous march at an unhurried, stately tempo.
The entire was well programmed for the outdoor venue, and the necessary amplification well-handled. Sitting near to the stage, there was minimal edge to the sound for someone sitting fairly close to the stage in the limited VIP section. One can only imagine similar satisfaction for audience sitting farther up on the gently sloping Oak Hill.
The ASO returns to Piedmont Park next Wednesday for another free concert, entitled “opera’s Greatest Hits,” led by by assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan, with a handful of guest vocal soloists – soprano Jacqueline Echols, mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, tenor Frederick Ballentine, baritone Nmon Ford and bass Morris Robinson – performing music by Bizet, Mozart, Smetana, Puccini, Offenbach, Verdi and Gershwin. ■