Music director designate Nathalie Stutzman conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Raftermen)

Stutzmann brings a different sensibility to Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
October 13 & 14, 2021
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor; Peter Herresthal, violin.
VERDI: Overture to La forza del destino
Missy MAZZOLI: Dark with Excessive Bright (US Premiere)
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5

Mark Gresham | 14 OCT 2021

Less than 10 hours after the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra publicly announced her as their new music director designate, Nathalie Stutzman ascended the podium at Symphony Hall to lead the orchestra in a concert of music by Verdi, Mazzoli, and Tchaikovsky.

The program began with an impressive performance of Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino. From the bold opening unison “E” fanfare by brass and bassoons, it had a feeling of unrushed assurance, whether in its more agitated or most reflective moments, but never overblown. The performance compelled the ears to sit up and take notice. It was as an opera orchestra should play it: a well-threaded foreshadowing of drama yet to come rather than a mere barn burner to raise a curtain — something it can too easily become in inexperienced hands.


Violinist Peter Herresthal then joined Stutzmann and the ASO as the soloist for Dark with Excessive Bright by American composer Missy Mazzoli, who was in the audience. That this performance was promoted as a “U.S. premiere” is only slightly misleading, as it was the U.S. premiere of this new version for violin and string orchestra. The original, for double bass and strings, has been played at least several times in the U.S. to date, including by Chicago Symphony Orchestra where Mazzoli is composer-in-residence.

That titular phrase from Milton, “dark with excessive bright,” seems to more aptly fit the sound of a double bass than it does a violin.

Missy Mazzoli (credit: Marylene Mey)

Missy Mazzoli (credit: Marylene Mey)

Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra for their principal bass player, Maxime Bibeau, and specifically for a double bass they possess, an instrument made by the Italian violin maker Gasparo da Salò around 1585 in Brescia, Italy. It’s probably one of the earliest double basses ever made and one of the oldest basses still around today. Gasparo da Salò was himself known as an expert bass player.

Mazzoli’s piece intends to capture the bass’s life over these nearly 440 years, how many different people have played many different styles of music on this instrument. It’s a story not unlike “The Red Violin,” except that the history of hands through which it passed is lost. Discovered stored in a monastery, the bass was acquired by an anonymous owner in 2012 who then loaned it to Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2013.

It was Herresthal who requested that Mazzoli create the transcription for the violin. He played the work enthusiastically, moving so much while playing that the ASO recording engineers placed a couple of extra microphones on stage to better capture the violin’s sound.

Violinist Peter Herresthal with the ASO and Stutzmann.

Violinist Peter Herresthal solos in the US premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s “Dark with Excessive Bright” with the ASO and Stutzmann. (credit: Raftermen)

Even with a small complement of only strings, Mazzoli has carefully scored the piece well so the soloist would not be overwhelmed and would have plenty of breathing room. In that respect, all of the composer’s craft worked like a charm.

In this performance, however, the orchestra was perhaps too sedate, too reserved — the piece never really caught fire at any point, despite Herresthal’s efforts at vividness. There was detail in phrasing, nuance, varied instrumental color, displaying an array of retrospective performance styles viewed from a 21st-century perspective. It strikes the listener as rhetorical in its deployment of materials. But what should, by all rights, have been a more emotionally engaging performance simply was not. Perhaps that is a shortcoming of transcription: placing the solo voice in a much higher register without the more dramatic “dark and bright” contrast inherent in the character of a double bass.

The original for double bass is a substantive addition to that instrument’s concerto repertoire; the violin version, not so much.

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After intermission, Stutzmann and the ASO turned to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Here is where insights into Stutzmann’s musicianship became most clearly revealed. It was not your typical Tchaikovsky Fifth. She applies very personal attention to phrasing, especially nuance of inflection within phrases and, as with the Verdi Overture, a feeling of unhurriedness that allows for breathing space — attributes of a practicing solo vocalist.

It was a more reserved, even introverted Tchaikovsky than what audiences typically hear, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Witness, for example, the famous horn solo in the second movement, which sounded more longing and distant than noble and extroverted. There was a softer texture, a somewhat subdued and thoughtful character to the entire Symphony, but also it was a deeply personal musical statement from Stutzmann.

All in all, what we got is a very different sensibility from what this orchestra (or American orchestras in general) is accustomed. But the ASO is an accomplished, flexible, and open-minded ensemble that is willing to experiment and learn new things. And what Sturzmann brings to the table seems musically insightful, fresh, and promising.

What will be most interesting is when Stutzmann returns in March 2022 to conduct Mozart’s Requiem. In a quote in the ASO’s press release of Wednesday morning, she described doing the Requiem as one of several “ambitious” projects. Really? Not technically ambitious for this chorus, which has performed Mozart’s Requiem quite skillfully over the decades. What may be ambitious is the discovery of how much Stutzmann’s sensibilities, as demonstrated in the Tchaikovsky Fifth, clash or jive with the legacy of Robert Shaw’s rhythmically driven choral techniques. That legacy remains today at the core of the ASO Chorus’ sound and artistic history. But the ASO Chorus itself has not been together for many months due to the pandemic. We will have to wait and see if this forthcoming Mozart Requiem marks a sharp turning point in that ensemble’s path forward.​

Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.