GIORGIO KOUKL | 21 MAY 2021
On Thursday, May 20, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented an interesting choice of music in its latest “Behind the Curtain” streamed concert. The year 1745 seems to have a certain fascinating presence in this program conducted by Jerry Hou, the ASO’s associate conductor, with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the Second Violin Concerto from Op. 5 of Joseph Bologne (sometimes seen spelled “Boulogne”) and the “Italian” Symphony No. 4 by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
It was in 1745 when in the middle of Caribbean islands, on a French territory called Guadeloupe, a wealthy planter had a son with the sixteen-year-old slave, maid of his wife, named Nanon. Luckily the father recognized this son and gave him the privilege of his name, but not the right to use the title Chevalier, and later on also some good education in Paris.
In the same period of time, someone had written this year, 1745, inside the last violin made by the great Italian violin maker Guarneri del Gesu. There are many histories and legends about this date, rather impossible as the great Cremonese maestro died probably a year before. Someone suggested that the wife of Guarneri, Katarina Rota, who already helped her husband in building and finishing violins, completed and signed this violin in order to sell it better. Somebody else suggested the theory of an ill-written numeral “5” which should be read as a “3”. Nonetheless its sound was one of the best Guarnieri violins ever. Over the course of the centuries it bewitched great masters like Henryk Szering, who owned this instrument until 1988, year of his death. And it is exactly this incredible violin we had the chance to hear in the hands of a rising star among violinists, Augustin Hadelich.
Mr. Hadelich, of German parents but born in Italy, is pursuing a remarkable career and with his 37 years of age and already a Grammy in his portfolio is surely one of the most noteworthy violinists of his generation. Having played a lot of unusual repertoire recently (Ligeti, Kurtag, Takemitsu), his ability to deliver a personal voice when necessary is a good starting point for a new and particular rendering of Bologne’s music.
The concert opened with the short Overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Mr. Hou has chosen a very quick tempo, but was really persuasive in his precision of gesture, followed extremely well by the orchestra. His way of conducting is not spectacular, he never makes great show, but is well received in this minimalist approach and quasi “da camera” conception.
After a short interview with Hadelich, we could listen to the Violin Concerto No. 2 of Joseph Bologne.
Let’s return briefly to the personal history of this composer. Once established in Paris, he soon had the most extraordinary success in Parisian circles as a well known composer, an extraordinary violinist and one of the most courageous fencers. Even if his surviving music is numerically not so important, his particular voice should be noticed. He has been even called the “black Mozart,” probably for his ease of melodic invention. Later on, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, after many delusions within the profoundly racist society of his time, embarked with enthusiasm in the ranks of the military corps of the French Revolution.
From the very first bars of this music it was clear that we had in front a quite unusual soloist. Mr. Hadelich was spectacular in his breathtaking precision and the Guarneri del Gesu sounded under his hands far more Stradivari like as I would have expected: a vivid, clear and generous sound, nothing in common with the most Guarneri del Gesu violins I ever heard in my life, which usually are more dark and somber. Hou in accompanying was precise and non invasive. Once again the tempi were all on the quick side, probably a wise choice with this very repetitive score.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 followed. Written during the composer’s “Grand Tour“ through Italy, it has no particular use of “Italian” themes, maybe with exception of the last movement, a sort of “saltarello,” but the composer is trying to transform in music the main impressions of his extended trip of three years duration. In contrast with his “Scottish” Symphony, the thematic material is light, vivacious and without dramatic or dark content. The work was presented in London, much to the enjoyment of the public, but strangely it never pleased the composer, which continued to rewrite it until his death.
This Symphony was the real highlight for the conductor. This time, too, Mr. Hou has chosen a very quick pace, at least for the first and last movements, bringing the orchestra on the limit of feasible. It was a pleasure to follow the woodwind section of ASO delivering the cascades of staccato notes in a precise way, rarely heard.
The overall recording impression was a very good one, all sound came direct, without annoying delays and in a just proportion, maybe with the exception of the timpani, sometimes too weak. I also admired the non-invasive, but very suggestive lighting of the wall behind the orchestra, a real artwork on its own.
The concert, generally speaking, can be considered a real success for the conductor, logically a brilliant result for the young violinist, but here nothing less could be expected, and a marvelous showcase of professional skills for the ASO and all its components. ■