Guest conductor James Gaffigan conducted the first piece on Thursday's ASO concert without baton or mask. (video frame / ASO)

Review: Atlanta Symphony, Gaffigan, dispense with plastic shields but continue to distance

May 27, 2021

Streamed from Symphony Hall
James Gaffigan, conductor
Michael TILSON THOMAS: Street Song for Symphonic Brass
William Grant STILL: Wood Notes
Antonín DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70


This week’s streamed concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra marked an important turning point in

Gone are the Plexiglas shields that were so obvious in previous streamed performances. Musicians continued to distance, even if a little closer, and players strings, harp, keyboard, timpani and percussion continued to wear masks. But it is a clear sign of coming out of from under the most stringent pandemic safety precautions.

Late this afternoon, less than 20 hours after the ASO’s concert stream premiered, the office of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp sent out a press release stating that the Governor has issued an executive order which “eliminates rules for restaurants, bars, conventions, childcare facilities, live performance venues, and other organizations. Previous executive orders eliminated regulations for camps and sporting events. Limited guidelines remain for long-term care facilities, schools, and school districts. ”

There is palpable progress being made toward getting back to “normal” – whatever that winds up being.


Guest conductor James Gaffigan and the full complement of the ASO brass section opened the concert with Street Song for Symphonic Brass (1988) by Michael Tilson Thomas, which is written for three C trumpets, one B-flat flugelhorn, Four horns in F, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone and one tuba. Although it was not in a subscription concert, the ASO brass, as an ensemble, was last featured in a Holiday concert back on December 21. It was a delight then, and a delight to hear them featured again this week. Word was that the dozen musicians themselves were really looking forward to it.

Tilson Thomas is far better known as a conductor but has a respectable catalog as composer. Gaffigan had hear Street Song when his was associate conductor at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra where Tilson Thomas was music director at the time. Although he had considered having the brass perform music by Gabrieli, spaced far apart, when the safety precautions were tighter, the easing of the restrictions made him think to make a change and program Street Song instead. It was a good decision.

The full complement of ASO brass, without Plexiglas barriers, performs street Song by Michael Tilson Thomas. (video frame / ASO)

The full complement of ASO brass, without plastic barriers between them, perform Street Song by Michael Tilson Thomas. (video frame / ASO)

Although in many ways the style of Street Song is clearly an extension of Copland’s style, there are also elements of jazz and a smidgen of Eastern music present if you listen closely. Overall it’s the work’s Americanism that stands out. It proved a great showpiece for the brass as its own cohesive ensemble. The musicians were seated in a single big semicircle, with Gaffigan conducting without either baton or mask – after all, the brass players were not wearing masks themselves, and his distance from them, at the arc’s focal point, was much more than safe.

The American sentiments continued with Wood Notes by the great African-American composer William Grant Still. Wood Notes musically expresses Still’s love of nature in four brief movements: “I. Singing River: Moderately slow,”“II. Autumn Night: Lightly,” “III. Moon Dusk: Slowly and expressively,” “IV. Whippoorwill’s Shoes: Humorously.” Here Gaffigan took up both baton and mask to lead the piece.


Wood Notes is a less familiar work than any of Still’s five Symphonies – not even appearing on Wikipedia’s list of “selected compositions” by the composer. And there appears to be only one commercial recording of it available (recorded by John Jeter and the Fort Smith Symphony, on the Naxos label). Wood Notes was new to both Gaffigan and the ASO. However, it is a lovely, colorful piece of honest simplicity and attractiveness which genuinely deserves to receive much greater exposure and performances by symphony orchestras.

Although not heard as often as his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, B. 141, the final work on the program, is both his most structurally ambitious, the most difficult to play, and the most consciously international in its musical language and style. It possesses much drama and many changes of emotion, more dark and aggressive than the untroubled folk-oriented style of Dvořák’s brief “Slavic period” that preceded his fully mature works like the Seventh Symphony.

Masks on for string players: James Gaffigan conducts the ASO. (video frame / ASO)

Masks on for string players: James Gaffigan conducts the ASO. (video frame / ASO)

In contrast to the work’s overall dark and serious demeanor is the buoyant Scherzo, with some of its Brahmsian affectations, which did not fly too fast under Gaffigan’s hand. (Dvořák had heard and admired Johannes Brahms’ new Symphony No. 3, which prompted him to think of writing the Seventh, which was known as his Second Symphony until 1955, when the numbering was revised to include his first four unpublished symphonies. It took a couple of decades for the new numbers to catch on, but they are the standard today.)

The final movement is the trickiest in the symphony, as under the wrong hands it can come off as a bit rhythmically square, even with its blustery drama, especially following the scherzo. But Gaffigan and the orchestra did not allow that to happen, and we got a performance with good attention to forward moving but at times flexible tempos, with good attention at ends of phrases where it really counted. It kept the interest alive through the work’s remarkably organ-like, resolute D major ending. ■

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer for EarRelevant. He has been a music journalist for over 30 years, and a composer of music for much longer than that.