Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus perform Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music." (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Review: Spano and ASO forces deliver beauty in Vaughan Williams, joy in Bach

Mark Gresham | 07 FEB 2020

Audience members braved the uncertain wake of severe weather to attend Thursday night’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus, of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and J.S. Bach. ASO music director Robert Spano conducted the program which also featured four guest vocal soloists: soprano Maria Valdes (a Marietta native in her ASO debut), mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Morgan Smith. The program is scheduled be performed again Saturday night at Symphony Hall.

Spano returned to Atlanta to conduct this week’s ASO concerts after leading a January 29 concert at the Barbican in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra which included the world premiere of Kyrie eleison by Dimitrios Skyllas (a BBC commission), along with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor with Garrick Ohlsson as pianist.


Back home, Spano led a contrasting and somewhat less heady program on Thursday that was strongly redolent of England thanks a preponderance of the music cby Ralph Vaughan Williams, opening with his Serenade to Music and closing with his Symphony No. 5.

Absent both the esotericness of Pärt’s music or the thrill-ride of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, what Vaughan Williams gives us is music of warm and sumptuous beauty without rising to any really high level of storminess, although with plenty enough variety of color and expression.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus perform Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music." (credit: Jeff Roffman)

ASO music director Robert Spano. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Setting a text the composer adapted from Act V, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the vocal parts for Serenade to Music (1938) were originally written in 16 solo voice – specific singers, in fact. The pragmatic Vaughan Williams, however, created multiple alternative versions: one for chorus and orchestra, one of violin solo and orchestra and the one heard on this concert for four solo voices, chorus and orchestra.

In this version, Vaughan Williams deploys the chorus mostly divisi, in as many as 10 parts, but occasionally in unison; four-part texture only rarely. In this way he achieves an exceptional richness of texture. Through the additional use of harmonic planing, the divided choral parts additionally take on an additional modern freshness of color – all of which was handled most beautifully by the ASO Chamber Chorus.


Chorus and soloists deported themselves very well in both Serenade to Music and the celebratory Baroque piece that followed, J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott” (“We Thanks You, God”). The other important aspect shared by both works was the presence of significant solo violin parts, ably played by ASO concertmaster David Coucheron. One must also note that the Bach cantata also featured a prominent organ part, played by ASO keyboardist Peter Marshall, most notably in the wprk’s opening “Sinfonia.”

But while the sound of the Chamber Chorus was solid, full and balanced in the Bach, from my seat in the audience the orchestra part felt bottom-heavy — except when the trumpets entered and made their presence fully known. It also felt at certain moments that the larger ensemble of instruments were not squarely aligned with each other in terms of pulse, those those moments were few.

After intermission the program returned to Vaughan Williams, with his Symphony No. 5. More akin in demeanor of his Symphony No. 3 (“ A Pastoral Symphony,” 1922) than the severe tone of Symphony No. 4 (1935) , No. 5 was begin in 1938 – the same year Serenade to Music was written – and complete in 1943, thus composed across the span of the British Empire’s engagement in World War II (1939- 1942).

I wouldn’t want to call the Fifth Symphony fully “pastoral,” certainly not in any innocent way. Rather, it seems a revisitation to that bucolic, somewhat romantic English ideal only after experience and awareness of something entirely other. There is a sense of longing in parts of the music, with its influences folk-song and Anglican hymnody, but also its conspicuous tribute to the music of Jean Sibelius that is audible in elements of orchestration.

What we did not get was a typical “big bang” ending to the concert. What we did get was a thoughtful and deeply moving work which, like the Serenade to Music, began and ended quietly (and both on a D major chord in divisi strings), leaving the listener much to contemplate and ponder. ■