Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchstra in music by Buller, Higdon and Rimsky-Korsakov. ( (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Avital excels in Higdon’s Mandolin Concerto with Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
March 31 & April 2, 2022
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA

Robert Spano, conductor; Avi Avital, mandolin.
BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3
Xavier FOLEY: Soul Bass
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9
Pre-Concert Chamber Performance
(Thursday @ 6:30pm only)
Robert Spano, conductor; David Coucheron, violin; Zhenwei Shi, viola; Christina Smith, flute; Laura Ardan, clarinet.
DEBUSSY: Sonata in G Minor for Violin and Piano
MOZART: Clarinet Trio in E-flat, K. 498, “Kegelstatt”
POULENC: Sonata for Flute and Piano

Mark Gresham | 2 APR 2022

Thursday’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured the return of Robert Spano to the podium, leading the orchestra in a pair of 21st-century works plus a perennial orchestral favorite, with mandolinist Avi Avital as guest soloist.

The concert kicked off with the world premiere of The Paralletic Transits by Mark Buller. At a mere three minutes, this short curtain-raiser by the Houston-based composer is a celebration of Spano’s tenure as ASO music director. Spano stepped down from the post at the end of last season and currently serves as a co-artistic advisor in this transitional time before settling into the post of conductor laureate in coming seasons, aligned with the advent of Nathalie Stutzmann as the ASO’s new music director this fall.

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The title is a play upon the astronomical terms parallax, which means “change in the apparent position of an object relative to more distant objects, caused by a change in the observer’s line of sight towards the object” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition). Buller makes this an analogy for the pervasive impact of Spano and the Atlanta School of Composers upon the worldwide contemporary music scene, in the idea that individuals and small groups with a powerful vision can alter the course of culture and history. Typically, we do not see it until our perspective has changed enough over time to observe the re-alignment.

In this vivid and lively piece, Buller’s musical ideas combine and play off one other, sometimes aligning, sometimes impetuously interrupting. Ascending musical gestures gush suddenly like jet sprays of fountains, offsetting a persistent feeling of rhythmic undercurrent. Ultimately ending the complex harmonic and rhythmic play is a surprising final major chord.

Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital performs Jennifer Higdon's "Mandolin Concerto" with Robert Spano and the ASO. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital performs Jennifer Higdon’s “Mandolin Concerto” with Robert Spano and the ASO. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

The amazing Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital joined Spano and the ASO in performing the Mandolin Concerto by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, who grew up in Atlanta.

The American premiere had been given just four days earlier, on Sunday, March 22, by Avital with the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck at the Harris Theater, Chicago, Illinois. (So the ASO missed doing the American premiere by mere days.)

Higdon, who has a hectic schedule, did not attend Thursday’s concert. But neither was she able to attend Avital’s world premiere this past June with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski. Such seems one of the prices of success.

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Higdon’s two-movement, 20-minute Mandolin Concerto is just the latest in a string of successful concertos for violin, viola, oboe, soprano saxophone, piano, percussion, and full orchestra. While it does not extend the mandolin’s musical vocabulary into any extreme or unfamiliar regions, it is both a technical showpiece and a freshly expressive vehicle for the mandolinist.

While there are some elements of Americana buried here and there, this is no attempt to blatantly emulate the music of such popular American performers as, say, mandolinist Chris Thile, nor the Italian Baroque traditions of mandolin concerti. It is in Higdon’s own accessible and increasingly familiar compositional voice—warm and expressive, at times highly charged and at others lyrically graceful—and she leaves plenty of room in the orchestration for the mandolin to be heard clearly. Kudos to all. We got a genuinely delightful and engaging performance.

The final work on the program was Sheherezade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in a boldly forthright performance; no surprises here.

Sheherezade is a signature Spano/ASO work they recorded together in Symphony Hall on October 1, 2020, and released on Telarc in 2021 (Telarc Digital – CD-80568), along with the composer’s Russian Easter Overture.

In Thursday’s performance, concertmaster David Coucheron was superb at playing the sensuously tender leitmotif representing Scheherazade herself.

Spano heads back to Texas next week to conduct the Fort Worth Symphony, where he is music director, in another Higdon work, blue cathedral, along with music of Rachmaninoff and Respighi, on April 8, 9, and 10. After that, he will return to Atlanta for a one-night ASO special with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who performs Dvořák’s Cello Concerto on a program with that composer’s Symphony No. 9 (“Fron the New World”).

Ah, but there as more to mention about Thursday:

Robert Spano, as pianist, and ASO principal flute Christina Smith perform Poulenc's "Sonata for Flute and Piano." (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Robert Spano, as pianist, and ASO principal flute Christina Smith perform Poulenc’s “Sonata for Flute and Piano.” (credit: Jeff Roffman)

A Thursday-only pre-concert chamber music program at 6:30pm featured Spano as a pianist with four ASO principals. David Coucheron and Spano performed Debussy’s Sonata in G Minor for Violin and Piano. Clarinetist Laura Ardan and violist Zhenwei Shi joined Spano for Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Clarinet Trio. Then Spano and flutist Christina Smith performed Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. There was a great chemistry present between these musicians. It was good to see Spano perform again as a pianist in addition to his work as a conductor. Maybe his Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra schedule will allow him to visit Atlanta for occasional chamber concerts and even vocal recitals.


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.