MARK GRESHAM | 14 MAY 2021
There is a certain Mozartian character to the Symphony No. 5 of Franz Schubert, which kicked off Thursday’s “Behind the Curtain” streamed subscription series concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Schubert was infatuated with Mozart at the time he wrote it, when he was only 19 years old (and yet at that young age it was already his fifth). Schubert was infatuated with the composer at the time he composed it.
The piece was originally slated to end the concert, but as guest conductor Peter Oundjian noted in a mid-concert conversation, the right thing to do was put it first as the lightest piece on the program. Good decision. It would have been somewhat a deflation at the end, despite its bright and ebullient character. Coming first made for a much better programming arch. It is lightly scored for a symphony of its day: one flute, two each of oboes, bassoons and horn, and strings. No clarinets, trumpets or timpani.
While Schubert is typically classified as a Romantic composer, he is actually, like Beethoven, a bridge between classical and Romantic styles – just not as dramatic or as far-reaching one. Schubert died at an early age, only one and a half years after Beethoven. And given his youthful adoration of Mozart, it is worth exploring all of those “classical” elements in his music. (That goes for performances of his piano music as much as that for orchestras, although it is not the usual mode du jour.)
That is not to say Schubert was not experimenting forward. In the “Allegro” first movement he begins the recapitulation not in the tonic but in the sub-dominant key (as he does in his “Trout” Quintet) and some playing back and forth between major and minor modes when repeating melodic figures back-to-back (in which intonation wasn’t always square on the money).
The “Menuetto: Allegro molto” third movement is fast enough to have scherzo-like qualities, but can easily sound like it is in a no-man’s land in-between and lose touch with any minuet character while at the same time not being fully scherzotic – which, for me, is the ground where this particular performance trod. Somehow I was left at the end with the feeling that the work overall could have enjoyed just a little more sharpness of focus which could have generated a “wow” factor. It just didn’t quite ring that bell for me.
Billed as Andante cantabile for String Orchestra, the second movement of the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1934) of Florence Price was performed in an arrangement by Oundjian, made by adding a part for contrabass and indicating solo string passages in certain parts of the score.
Price was the first African-American woman composer to have music performed by a major symphony orchestra.
The movement’s melodic and harmonic language and gently rocking movements have a melancholic beauty that melds lyrical Black idioms into the modernist vocabulary of the mid-20th century to emotionally compelling effect.
Performance by string orchestra versus quartet does give it a lush kind of sound reminiscent of certain American film scores of that same era, but the interested listener would be enlightened by comparison listening to a fine quartet performance such as the one by Daniel Hope and musicians from New Century Chamber Orchestra on YouTube.
Stephen Hough was originally scheduled to perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor but had to cancel late in the game as the recording date approached. The ASO then turned to Atlanta pianist Julie Coucheron, who had only two weeks to prepare it.
Growing up in Norway, Coucheron played it when she was 11 years old, but not with orchestra. She had not performed it publicly since then, so it was a special treat to be able to do so in her subscription series debut with the ASO.
After she graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London, Julie Coucheron moved to New York City in 2012. She began dividing her time between New York and Atlanta to perform chamber music with her brother David, who has been concertmaster of the ASO since September 2010. She left New York to take up sole residence in Atlanta five years ago. Because she and David play so much chamber music together, and because she is otherwise such an active and vital part of Atlanta’s chamber music scene, the move made sense.
Ms. Coucheron has played frequently with both the Georgian Chamber Players and the Atlanta Chamber Players. When the pandemic suddenly threatened the livelihood of musicians everywhere, she spearheaded creation of a set of collaborative, crowd-funded live-streamed concerts between multiple chamber music entities this past summer at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, next door to the Woodruff Arts Center campus. Then in November 2020, she performed in Schubert’s Trout Quintet for the chamber music segment of an ASO “Behind the Curtain” streamed concert. But she had never performed as a concerto soloist with the orchestra on a subscription concert. When the ASO contacted her about playing the Mendelssohn concerto, needless to say she was totally delighted.
Mendelssohn was a dozen years younger than Schubert, and his Piano Concerto No. 1, premiered in 1831 was one of the first genuinely Romantic concertos. Its three movements are connected without pause, the piano enters very soon after the first movement begins – just two indicators of formal considerations that were forward-looking at the time.
Ms. Coucheron gave a performance of high energy and brilliant color, despite the fact that there seemed a few tuning issues with part of the piano’s upper register. An impressive nimbleness in her performance was the order of the day in this exuberantly extroverted performance. It was a happy high point to the ASO’s program. ■
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