Mark Gresham | 20 SEP 2021
There was no Thursday concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this past week. Atypically, the first concert of its second classical subscription series program of the new season took place on Friday.
Whether that was a part of what accounted for the sparse attendance or the promise of considerable contemporary music sandwiched in between a pair of tone poems by Richard Strauss, or the ongoing uncertainties about the spinning carousel of news about surging delta variant of coronavirus, the sight of rows of empty seats was saddening. Especially so in light of the turnout for the ASO’s opening night the previous Thursday.
Since September 1, admission to concerts at Symphony Hall began requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for COVID-19 less than 72 hours old, plus a photo ID. The orchestra’s safety precautions are solid, current front-line practice for public spaces. Audiences should feel safe to attend.
From the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ late-Romantic tone poem, Don Juan, there was an incisive vibrance and assurance of ensemble present that was not evident in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 the previous week. It immediately made this listener sit up and take notice, and it demanded full attention. At intermission on opening night, this was the sound I was hoping to begin hearing from the orchestra in a month. It arrived in only one week—Bravo, ASO, for coalescing quickly after returning to a standard configuration on stage in front of a live audience following a year of filming concerts with a limited, spread-out ensemble in front of an empty hall. It’s evidence we are rapidly on our way to normal, caveat a pandemic resurgence of unmanageable proportion.
Living under pandemic, limited to reaching out to others via digital media, also weighed upon the mind of New York composer-pianist Conrad Tao while writing his Violin Concerto for violinist Stefan Jackiw. Tao wrote in his program notes:
The ASO and Spano performed the concerto’s world premiere on Friday with Jackiw as soloist and Tao present in the audience.
Conspicuous from before the beginning of the concert were the speaker columns of either side of the stage’s proscenium. It became clear that amplification would play some role in the performance of Tao’s concerto, but not clear what. A microphone on a boom stand was near Jackiw, who played the concerto from a digital score. He had a foot pedal, but that was for turning the pages of his violin part. There were no electronic filtering or synthesis elements involved, only amplification. And not much of that.
(credit: Rand Lines)
Ultimately, it appears the amplification must have been a kind of contingency plan not in the original scheme of things. It became evident as the performance went on that the Tao’s orchestration was, for the most part, simply too dense for the solo violin to cut through. To see the accomplished Jackiw furiously sawing away much of the time in his complex part and yet not truly being able to hear him, despite the nominal amplification, which mostly gave the violin’s tone a thin patina of AM radio character, when heard at all.
Jackiw is a formidable soloist, and it’s too bad that his display of virtuosity was more visual than audible this time around.
None of that speaks to the music’s elements of style or structure, which are credible even if not an average subscription audience’s cup of tea. (And which strikes me as more late 1970s in aesthetic than the 2020s — the kind of music they usually don’t let us play anymore.)
The piece is, as the composer points out in his notes, “about lines.” But I would argue not only that. It’s essential to look at the shape, weave, and design of the whole cloth. Here Tao seems to succeed well enough in the long formal gesture, even with the outlier section in B major which lyrically emerges during the latter part of this 26-minute, one-movement concerto. More easily felt than deciphered.
But the big problem is the nearly impenetrable environment in which the solo violin finds itself. One could easily say that is symbolic of the individual struggle amid the overwhelming social chaos under the pandemic. But that kind of meta-musical whitewashing does not absolve the piece of its primary performance problem. It would be far better for the composer to resolve the balancing orchestration with the soloist or to dispense with the idea of a concerto and rewrite the piece as a purely orchestral work.
These concerts mark the third time Robert Spano has led the ASO in performing Alvin Singleton’s Different River, which came after intermission. First in its world premiere in 2012, then again in 2016.
Singleton (b. 1940 in Brooklyn, NY) has lived in Atlanta since he returned to the United States in 1985 to become composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, after living in Europe for 14 years as a successful composer.
(credit: Martin Popeláø)
As with his other orchestral works, the title Different River is not meant to be descriptive. Nonetheless, there is metaphor. Singleton drew inspiration for the 25-minute piece from a saying attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You cannot step twice into the same river.”
Musical ideas emerge and reappear in various guises and transformations, though never precisely the same way or in the same context. Singleton does not rush in introducing them but gives them space and room to breathe and the listener time to take them in. The result is an engaging, impressive contemporary work by a seasoned composer who possesses a distinctive, personal, and freshly creative voice.
To close the concert, Spano and the ASO returned to the music of Richard Strauss with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”). While not having the same immediate impact as did the “Don Juan” at the concert’s beginning, the more darkly impish “Till” was performed admirably, and was a great way to round out the program with another Strauss favorite. ■