Pianistb Inon Barnatan perfoming Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21" with the ASO. (source: Video frame capture / ASO)

Review: ASO delights with music of Barber, Mozart and Tchaikovsky

Mark Gresham | 16 OCT 2020

On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premiered the second episode of its six-concert virtual classical subscription series for Fall 2020. ASO music director Robert Spano conducted the orchestral works and pianist Inon Barnatan was guest soloist. The program featured a very nice music by Samuel Barber, W.A. Mozart and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

After an introductory montage (underscored by music unrelated to the concert at hand) and a conversation between ASO vice president and general manager Sameed Afghani, the musical program got underway with a chamber work for wind quintet: Summer Music by Samuel Barber, featuring the ASO’s principal players of the respective instruments involved: Christina Smith, flute; Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, oboe; Laura Ardan, clarinet; Jaclyn Rainey, horn, and Matthew Brady, bassoon. Since its premiere in 1956, the piece has become a staple of the woodwind quintet repertoire.

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Wind players, whether woodwind or brass, tend to be placed at a disadvantage these when it comes to performances in this pandemic-limited era. String players can wear standard masks and perform, as can percussionists, harpists and keyboardists. Winds either must play without a mask or using a specially-designed mask with an aperture for where the instrument meets the mouth, and these seem to be practical for all wind instruments except the flute. Additionally, wind players also are finding themselves ensconced between Plexiglas barriers that separate them from their colleagues. In short, like singers, wind players are suspected of being more likely to spread coronavirus than other musicians due to the breath being directly involved in playing.

A quintet of ASO principals plays Barber's "Summer Music" (source: video frame capture /ASO)

A quintet of ASO principals plays Barber’s “Summer Music” (source: video frame capture /ASO)

In the case of Summer Music, the performers did not wear masks, of course, but did have Plexiglas panels (in which reflections of players could also be seen) and were sufficiently socially-distanced for safe performance. Given that this was five players, that was especially easy to do on Symphony Hall’s vast stage. The arrangement certainly looked safe, and the performance of this appealing modern American work was a delight – musically, audibly and visually.

Inon Barnatan joined the ASO as piano soloist for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, which was the pinnacle of the program. It’s a piece for which its very familiarity risks a performance coming off as ordinary, but that was not the case. This performance felt fresh and spontaneous.

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The audio of the solo piano was clear and showed off well the colors, dynamics and articulatory details of Barnatan’s playing. Thanks to some well-chosen camera angles, we also got some excellent looks at Barnatan’s hands and fingers during the course of the concerto, visually revealing the technique that drew the sounds from the Steinway under them. Compliment is also due to whomever on the video team was responsible for the slow crossfade from the end of the first movement to the beginning of the second.

The concert concluded with Spano leading the strings of the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, which afforded a Romantic touch to the program without exceeding the limitations of number of musicians onstage at one time. Another piece which is known to provide a bit of musical “comfort food” for the typical season subscriber, it was a well-played conclusion to the evening – or perhaps another part of the day, depending on when you choose to view during the 72-hour span the video remains available online. ■

Robert Spano leads the ASO in Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings." (source: video frame capture / ASO)

Robert Spano leads the ASO in Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” (source: video frame capture / ASO)