Mark Gresham | January 2, 2019
On Tuesday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by associate conductor Stephen Mulligan, celebrated the turn of the new year with a concert of mostly Viennese music, played to a large and appreciative audience at the 1,070-seat Byers Theatre, the primary performance space of the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.
It’s the second time the ASO has performed a special New Year’s Eve concert at the Byers, centrally located in the city of Sandy Springs, a mere 30-minute, 10 mile ride straight up Peachtree Street and Roswell Road from the orchestra’s home venue of Symphony Hall in Midtown Atlanta. Conveniently, the location is also easily reached by public transportation, as both the number 5 and number 87 MARTA buses stop close by; though most patrons arrive by automobile and many take advantage of the valet parking directly in front of the box office. On this occasion, the Byers Theatre once again proved a valuable, attractive venue for Atlanta’s prosperous northern suburbs.
The program opened with an American work, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a four-and-a-half minute minimalist “fanfare” by John Adams, composed in 1986. An exciting and accessible curtain-raiser, Short Ride’s energy is derived from its underlying pulse, even as Adams takes the listener through the interplay of contrasting rhythms set against it, and a series of “gated” harmonic and modal shifts that take the place of conventional phrasing and structure. It could have easily set the tone for a very modern celebration of the year’s end, but it did not. The rest was entirely Viennese music of the late 9th and early 20th century – the “Old Vienna” and its grand ballrooms that is traditionally evoked in classical New Year’s Eve concerts.
To that end, the next piece of the program was one of the most popular by the composer known as “The Waltz King,” Johann Strauss Jr.: “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Most curiously, it was the weakest part of the program, if only the sole weakness. Perhaps a bit too careful in terms of tempos and the like when a more straightforward approach might have been better suited to this particular occasion. None of the rest of Strauss Jr.’s pieces suffered from that.
The weightiest work on Tuesday’s program was the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Strauss did not actually create the Suite himself, but authorized its publication. Most likely it was assembled from the opera by conductor Artur Rodziński, who led its first performance in 1944 on a program by the New York Philharmonic.
The Suite incorporates a varied swath of music from the passionate orchestral prelude, and multiple scenes, and multiple waltzes, and final coda of music not from the opera, but composed specifically to emphatically close the Suite – and in this instance, the first half of the concert.
After intermission, the music took on more of the party-like focus on dance. Three of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Nos. 1, 3 and 10, kicked off the second half with their gypsy fervor. Likewise energetic came a pair of exuberant polkas by Johann Strauss, Jr,: the “Tritsch-Tratsch Polka” and “Thunder and Lightning Polka.” They set up a nice contrast with what is likely that composer’s most popular waltz, “An der schönen blauen Donau” (“On the Beautiful Blue Danube”) which exuded both joy and that aura of ballroom elegance.
To close, Mulligan and the ASO brought forth a popular piece which traditionally involves audience participation. The Radetzky March by Johann Strauss, Sr., where a section that returns multiple times ask for the audience to clap on the beat, first softly, then loudly. And the audience enthusiastically took part.
Although the concert was hardly all bon-bons (certainly neither Adams Short Ride nor Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier music fit that mold) it’s important to remember the intent of this concert was celebration and entertainment on the lighter side of the classical spectrum. To that end, it was very effective and enjoyable – a good piece of the “happy” in the midnight cheers of “Happy New Year” yet to come.