Opening night of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 75th anniversary season. l-r: music director Robert Spano, violinist Joshua Bell. (credit: Rafterman Photography)

Review: ASO opens 75th season with focus on performers’ abilities

Mark Gresham | 23 SEP 2019

On Friday evening, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 75th anniversary season with music by Wagner, Higdon, Weniawski, and Sarasate, led by ASO music director Robert Spano and violinist Joshua Bell as guest soloist. The concert was repeated on Saturday night and again on Sunday afternoon. All three of the concerts were sold out and Saturday night’s performance was simultaneously live-streamed on multiple internet platforms.

Spano’s love of Wagner’s music is no secret. And after the rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner that traditionally opens a season, it was not all that surprising to hear Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, but all the more interesting in that the 75th anniversary season will also close with Wagner: a concert performance the complete Tristan und Isolde as the classical subscription season’s final week, one act per performance.

The Wagner was given a gladsome, performance with a well-rounded sound, perhaps a little more dark-roasted and full-bodied Bavarian flavor than we are accustomed to hearing from the Symphony Hall stage. That was followed followed by a piece that required some leaner, yet robustly energized playing Jennifer Higdon’s exuberant Concerto for Orchestra.

Jennifer Higdon, composer. (credit: J Henry Fair)

Jennifer Higdon, composer. (credit: J Henry Fair)

Higdon’s Concerto, which premiered in 2002, was one of eight works commissioned for the centennial of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the only one among them by a Philadelphia composer. It was the work that catapulted Higdon into the national eye and ear, some eight years before she won the Pulitzer Prize in music for her Violin Concerto, but only five months before the ASO and Spano premiered a new piece they commissioned from her, City Scape, a tribute to the first decade of her life spent growing up in Atlanta, through she was born in Brooklyn, New York.

Within the year after its Philadelphia premiere, Spano and the ASO first performed the Concerto For Orchestra in a special Gala concert on September 13, 2003, but would not be performed as part of a classical subscription concert until 2015. Although the work was given its world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was the ASO and Spano who made the world premiere recording of Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra for Telarc following the ASO’s 2003 performance along with City Scape.


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Thus the Concerto is a work which holds a significant place in the legacy of Spano’s tenure with the orchestra, as does Higdon herself as a member of the “Atlanta School” of composers founded by Spano. Naturally, a cheerful Higdon was present in the audience for Friday night’s performance, where she greeted by friends and fans.

Like Béla Bartók’s famous eponymous concerto (1943) and that of Lutosławski (completed 1954), Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra lives up to its name in showcasing the abilities of not only the orchestra’s principal players but also each of the sections of the orchestra. The movements are only numbered, not titled, but my favorites are the scherzo-like second movement which plays homage to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s legendary string sections and the fourth movement which brings to the fore the varied capabilities, and wide dynamic range, of the percussion section.

Speaking of showcasing ability, superstar violinist Joshua Bell joined Spano and the orchestra for the second half for the program, performing first Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, then closing the concert with Ziegerunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) by another violinist-composer, the Spanish-born Pablo de Sarasate.


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In both cases, Bell played with his high-level acumen and on-target technique. Likewise, both works, while attractive, were more showcases for the violinist than for the two composers who wrote them. That suited the occasion though it didn’t match Bell with the well-worn work of a towering figure among composers this time around. But it is worth remembering that both of these minor composers were violinists first, and what they wrote was for themselves to perform, to show off their performing skill. They did so for Bell in good service.

Come to think of it, looking back at Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger and that opera’s story, the entire concert was about celebrating performers’ musical capabilities. Frankly, that’s not a bad underlying theme for a concert.

On a final note, the ASO has added six musicians to its 2019-20 roster: principal Zhenwei Shi, principal cello Ranier Eudeikis, associate principal oboe Zachary Boeding, and in a trio of one-year appointments with section second violin Sheela Iyengar, section contrabass Brittany Conrad, and section trombonist Jeremy Buckler. Current vacancies to be filled include principal horn, principal trombone and one section percussion spot.

And though mentioned before in this publication, worth repeating here that back in the spring Stephen Mulligan was promoted from Assistant to Associate Conductor while retaining his position as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. Mulligan will lead the ASO in a free, open air “Around the A” concert at 7pm this Wednesday evening at Centennial Olympic Park, with a pre-concert performance at 6pm featuring young musicians from the ASO Talent Development Program and the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. ■


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