ASO principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles (video frame / ASO)

Review: Sir Donald Runnicles leads the ASO in sparkling Mozart, artful Beethoven

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
April 8, 2021

Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor and pianist
Christina Smith, flute
Elisabeth Remy Johnson, harp
MOZART: Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra in C major, K. 299/297c
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B♭ major, Op. 60

Melinda Bargreen | 9 APR 2021

In the age of the pandemic, music lovers may dream of being swept off to Vienna for some culture and a little gemütlichkeit. For the next two weeks, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is bringing Vienna to internet audiences, with a Mozart and Beethoven program that is the next best thing to international travel. The program, led by principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, is available to view and hear online through April 22.

Spivey Hall 2021-22 Season (ad)

The music is preceded by some brief welcoming remarks in which Runnicles told the orchestra’s vice president and general manager Sameed Afghani that he experienced “a connection stronger than I’ve ever felt it … I’ve never had such a bond with the musicians. Music has this healing power for all of us.”

That connection was certainly borne out in the concert that followed: Mozart’s sparkling Concerto for Flute and Harp, followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Here, as in previous ASO online programs, the camera work – that one splendid asset that live concerts cannot duplicate – brought the audience right up to Elisabeth Remy Johnson’s harp strings, and practically inside Christina Smith’s flute. (Both players are orchestra principals.) Some particularly effective camera angles showed views of the flute through the strings of the harp.

ASO principal harp, Elisabeth Remy Johnson, and principal flute Christina Smith solo in Mozart's "Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra." (video frame / ASO)

ASO principal harp, Elisabeth Remy Johnson, and principal flute Christina Smith solo in Mozart’s “Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra.” (video frame / ASO)

So effective and penetrating was the eye of the camera that it offers an access to the music-making process that cannot be equaled in live concerts. The camera’s lens goes where the audience’s eye cannot. When the longed-for return to live concerts occurs, many music lovers might miss seeing the musicians’-eye view of the maestro, or the occasional peep at a player’s score, among many things that can’t be seen from those far-away seats in the audience.

The sound in the Mozart concerto had an almost glistening quality; both players were smoothly assured, and the balances between the two soloists and the orchestra were ideal. Runnicles was a calmly understated presence on the podium; his conducting was restrained but expressive. Small gestures beseeched and coaxed the orchestra players forward, and they quickly responded. It’s possible to quibble over a few very minor points (the opening phrases of the concerto’s second movement were a little imprecise, for example), but the overall effect was remarkably lovely. Among the more memorable moments: the first movement cadenza, a fluid, pliant duet beautifully balanced between the two soloists.

It’s humbling to reflect that this sparkling concerto was composed by a 22-year-old genius who was not particularly fond of either instrument, though he hoped to win the favor of a flute-playing duke and his harpist daughter. It didn’t work – but Mozart won the favor of posterity.


The second and final work on the program, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, is often described somewhat condescendingly as the least performed of his nine symphonies. Possibly that’s because the Fourth is sandwiched between two eternal favorites: Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3) and the iconic Symphony No. 5. But No. 4 earned respect from both Berlioz and Schumann, the latter famously calling it “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” Among this symphony’s several charms: the suspenseful “Adagio” opening movement that finally resolves into the lively “Allegro vivace”; and a charming third-movement “Menuetto” with some beautiful scoring for woodwinds.

Runnicles is not a conductor of huge, grand gestures; he emphasized the contrasts in the score with an expressive right hand that got immediate results from the attentive players. The second movement was particularly fine: artful phrasing and articulation in all the strings, all highlighted by clever camera angles (concertgoers seldom see a view of the stage through the strings of a double bass). Buoyant and unforced, the third movement’s woodwind solos were excellent, and Runnicles gave the fourth a light, fleet texture that rose to a high-spirited finale. ■

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.

Runnicles and the ASO perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. (video frame / ASO)

Runnicles and the ASO perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. (video frame / ASO)