Cellist Seth Parker Woods solos in Tyshawn Sorey’s "For Roscoe Mitchell." (video frame capture /ASO)

Review: Atlanta Symphony mixes classic, contemporary, and an early 20th century take on a 16th century tune

Mark Gresham | 15 JAN 2021

On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premiered the most recent episode of its “Behind The Curtain” virtual classical concerts, led by guest conductor Maxim Emelyanychev with cellist Seth Parker Woods has guest soloist. The concert featured the music of Ralph Vaughan Willians, Tyshawn Sorey and Franz Joseph Haydn.

The 32-year-old Emelyanychev is currently chief conductor of period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Born into a musical family, the Russian conductor, pianist, harpsichordist and cornetist studied music at the Nizhny Novogorod Choral College and the Balakirev State Music College in Nizhny Novogrod. He also studied conducting at the Moscow State Conservatory with Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

The concert opened with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a one-movement work for two string orchestras plus string quartet. The theme was written in 1567 by English composer Thomas Tallis as one of nine tines composed in Phrygian mode for a hymn text text in Common Meter Double (C.M.D.) by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker.

Maxim Emelyanychev leads the ASO in Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme of Thoms Tallis." (video frame capture /ASO)

Maxim Emelyanychev leads the ASO in Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thoms Tallis.” (video frame capture /ASO)

Vaughan Williams first encountered the tune while editing The English Hymnal, published in 1906. He first came to use it in his incidental music to a play, a staging of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that very same year. Then in 1910 Vaughan Williams used it again as the theme of his Fantasia, commissioned by that year’s Three Choirs Festival for first performed at Gloucester Cathedral.

The string quartet was in front on the left, near the conductor, but rather than place the two string orchestra side by side, antiphonally, Emelyanychev chose to position the second orchestra behind the first, standing (except for cello and bass) behind the first orchestra. One could see how the microphone placements accounted for the unusual positioning of the musicians. Such positioning of players can require listening adjustments to cope with localized acoustic differences to which musicians may not be accustomed. It did hang together quite well, however. The effect of Vaughan Williams’ use of multiple string choirs feels more reminiscent of Gabrieli than of Tallis, but that doesn’t matter in the end, as it’s regarded as the first orchestral work in which Vaughan Williams found his own musical voice. In any case, it is a gorgeous work, performed here with passion and depth.


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Houston-born cellist Seth Parker Woods is a versatile artist and fierce advocate for contemporary arts, pushing boundaries and 2cultural assumptions across social divisions of class, ethnicity and background. He currently serves on the performance faculty at the University of Chicago as a Lecturer/Artist in Residence for Cello and Chamber Music.

Woods gave the world premiere performance of Tyshawn Sorey’s For Roscoe Mitchell with the Seattle Symphony and conductor Thomas Dausgaard in a virtual concert streamed in November of last year. These ASO concerts are only the second time they have been performed by an orchestra. It is the first of two single-movement works for soloist and orchestra that Sorey composed in 2020.

The the titular dedicatee, Roscoe Mitchell (b.1940) is an American avant-garde jazz composer and saxophonist known for his technically superb, idiosyncratic style. He is considered a key figure in the genre. Soery says that For Roscoe Mitchell largely drew inspiration from their performances together, such as on Mitchell’s 2017 recording, Bells for the South Side, on which Sorey played trombone, piano, drums and percussion.


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For Roscoe Mitchell is not a concerto, as the composer himself confirms. It is is a single movement rather than the typical fast-slow-fast textbook concerto scheme. There are no flashy technical passages and no cadenza. It is a piece for cello soloist and orchestra in which the two are meant to be heard together as a single unit in internal dialogue rather than a duality of competing or contrasting forces.

The piece also approaches time in a contemplative way, rather than a dramatic structure which pushes momentum toward toward a final goal. Tight, sometimes anxious harmonies and limited linear gestures hang in the air through most of the work, although near the end there is a brief rush of movement like the roll of an ocean wave rather than the dash of a sprinter headed for the finish line.

Overall it is a quiet, contemplative, colorful and well-crafted piece which avoids the trendy populism of much 21st-century music currently in vogue. Woods, Emelyanychev and the ASO gave it an engaged performance that avoided allowing the style to devolve into an exercise in intellectualism. We got the music that goes beyond the notes.

Atlanta Symphpny Orchstra plays Haydn's symphony No. 103. (video frame capture / ASO)

Atlanta Symphpny Orchstra plays Haydn’s symphony No. 103. (video frame capture / ASO)

The concert closed with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E♭ major (H. 1/103, (nicknamed “Drumroll”). Written during the winter of 1794-1795, it is Haydn’s penultimate symphony, one of 12 he composed for first performance in England. Emelyanychev, who conducted the entire concert sans bâton, and appears to be left-handed, as well had he string sections in an unusual configuration: left to right, as seen from the podium were first violins, cellos, violas and second violins, with contrabasses behind the cellos of the conductor’s left rather than on the right side where they normally are from the audience’s perspective. (This also was the case with Sorey’s work, but less immediately noticeable than in the Haydn.)

In the Haydn is where Emelyanychev seemed most animated and varied in his conducting gestures in his effort to coax greater difference in dynamic range from the orchestra, to the extent of flamboyance at times, sometimes bouncing around like a spring. I’m not sure how the musicians felt about the changes in seating (or working with Emelyanychev – sometimes that’s hard to read in a performance, though at other times exceptionally easy), but with the COVID-19 restrictions still in place, all norms for seating are out the window, and everyone has had to readjust. So an experiment with literal musical chairs isn’t a bad risk as an internal listening exercise as an orchestra. It all works toward a more flexible team of players in the long run, something for which the ASO already has good reputation. ■


Mark Gresham is a an American composer and music journalist. He is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant.

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