giest conductor Karina Canellakis, and vioinist Itamar Zorman tacle Alban Berg's complex Violin Concerto with the ASO. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Review: Beethoven set the tone for ASO concert, with landmark works by Berg and Shostakovich

Mark Gresham | 31 JAN 2020

Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Beethoven, berg and Shostakovich, led by guest conductor Karina Canellakis, with violinist Itamar Zorman as guest soloist. The program is scheduled to be repeated on Saturday night at Symphony Hall, followed by a post-concert conversation with Canellakis will take place in the Rich Theatre.

The concert kicked off with a bang as Canellakis and the ASO brought forth a performance of Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3 that was deliberate and full bodied. From the Overture’s emphatic opening notes, it was clear that Canellakis was on target with her approach to the piece: an assured power without bluster, softer passages that retained a tensile strength, and an attention to well-shaped, expressive phrasing. It was an unusually compelling, game on opener that went substantively beyond “curtain raiser” in manner, raising expectations for the rest of the evening.

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ext up, 35-year-old Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman took the stage as soloists for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.. Worth noting that Zorman played it to win a Second Prize in the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition – shared with Russian violinist Sergey Dogadin, as no violinist was awarded a First Prize that year, according to the newspaper Российской газете (Russian Gazette).

Written in 1935, the Violin Concerto is Berg’s best-known and most performed instrumental work, in which the composer sought to reconcile diatonicism and the dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School, of which Berg’s music is the most approachable of its three principal exponents (Schoenberg and Webern being the other two).

Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman plays Berg's Violin Concerto. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman plays Berg’s Violin Concerto. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

It is a complex work in its highly chromatic harmonies and elements of style, which emphasize its emotional complexities. Although a commissioned work which had been set aside while Berg was working on his opera, Lulu, what finally motivated him to compose it was the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, due to polio. Berg dedicated the concerto “To the memory of an angel” on the title page of the manuscript.

Yet for all its harmonic complexity, it is a remarkably lyrical, hauntingly poetic piece. The 12-tone row used by Berg there has strong tonal implications. Overlapping groups of three notes form four triads: G minor, D major, A minor and E major, with a whole tone tetrad at the end. (See and hear the example.) The complete row is introduced by the violin at measure 15.

Balance, however, was a big issue in Thursday’s performance. For me, the volume of the colorist could have been up a notch and that of the orchestra down a notch in louder passages. When Zorman was well-heard, much better in the second movement than the first – notably in the cadenza that opens the second movement as well as a more sparsely orchestrated passages – its was clear his playing was excellent. But too much seemed to disappear in the texture or upstaged by secondary, complementary lines in the orchestra.

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Completed only two years after Berg’s violin concerto, the massive Symphony No. 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich is an entirely different smoke in style and manner. It’s a muscular and heroic work, large in scope – typically 45 to 50 minutes in duration, longer than the Beethoven and Berg combined. Ir was an important landmark in Shostakovich’s career, gaining the composer both immense public approval and a reprieve from repression bu the Stalinist Soviet government.

Although the Finale is the most popular movement, the other three are its equal in substance and impact, and it has earned its place as one of the great symphonies of toe 20th century. Canellakis and the ASO gave it a grand, impressive performance. ■

Canellakis conducts Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3. (Credit : Jeff Roffman)

Canellakis conducts Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. (Credit : Jeff Roffman)