ASO principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles. (credit: Rand Lines)

Runnicles leads the ASO, Shi plays Walton

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
February 24 & 26, 2022
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor; Zhenwei Shi, violist.
James B. WILSON: The Green Fuse
Sir William WALTON: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1929)
Felix MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”)

Mark Gresham | 25 FEB 2022

Thursday’s classical subscription concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra took on a decidedly British tone, even though not all of the music was British.

ASO principal conductor Sir Donald Runnicles chose to open the concert with a contemporary work by English composer James B. Wilson, The Green Fuse (2017), inspired by a poem of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

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While Thomas’ poetry did not accompany the music in either spoken or sung form, what did was a video projection that drew imagery directly from the first verse: in the lower foreground, the shoots of a green plant poked up from the bottom of the screen, and the face of a baby behind it. As the plant grew, bloomed, and faded, the human face behind it aged from childhood to youth to adulthood, then elderly in parallel to the plant.

Unfortunately, the music, although well-scored for string orchestra and full of grace and color, this 10-minute piece came across as essentially an atmospheric exercise and could not have stood on its own as a concert piece without leaning upon the uncredited, predictable sequence of imagery. Both would likely benefit from an actor of appropriate voice reading Thomas’s moving poetry as part of the performance. Call it an opportunity missed.

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Next, violist Zhenwei Shi made his ASO classical subscription debut performing William Walton’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Born in Changsha, in the Hunan province of south-central China, Shi was appointed principal viola of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2018. by then-music director Robert Spano.

Although this was the first opportunity for Atlanta audiences to hear Shi as a soloist with the ASO, he has also shown his skills as a chamber musician with the Georgian Chamber Players in several concerts during 2020 and 2021.

ASO principal violist Zhenwei Shi solos in Sir William Walton's "Viola Concerto." (credit: Rand Lines).

ASO principal violist Zhenwei Shi solos in Sir William Walton’s “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra” with the ASO and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. (credit: Rand Lines).

When Walton completed his Viola Concerto, he was the same age as Shi (who turns 27 in March, both have March birthdays less than two weeks apart). What a remarkable coincidence, which must be meaningful for the young viola soloist.

It was a brilliant performance by Shi, who exhibited a splendidly vibrant, warm sound and a virtuosity that seemed effortless. Another audience member close to the stage observed that Runnicles looked at the Shi at one point during the second movement and seemed to mouth the word, “Wow!” The entire concerto was impressive.

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The nickname of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 is “Scottish,” not “Scotch.” Scotch is a drink. Nor is Mendelssohn’s Symphony parsimonious (a pejorative sense, as in the brand of adhesive tape).

Although significantly inspired by the composer’s journey to Scotland, if far more than a musical travelogue. Mendelssohn struggled with it, and it took more than a dozen years for him to complete. It has its Scottish folk influences, indeed, especially in the joyful second movement and in the finale. But the emotional scope of the work is much broader. Runnicles and the ASO give us that emotional breadth and depth in their performance.

• The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will repeat the program at 8:00pm on Saturday, February 26, 2022 at Shmphony Hall.


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.