Guest conductor Peter Oundjian leads the ASO in the final work of its 2022-23 season-opening concert, seen here in the final work of the program, Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. (credit: Rand Lines)

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opens its 2022-23 season with music of Mozart, Thompson, and Rachmaninoff

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
September 22 & 24, 2022
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA

Peter Oundjian, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano; Joel Thompson, composer & narrator.
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 18 in B♭ major, KV. 456
Joel THOMPSON: To Awaken the Sleeper
RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances

Mark Gresham | 23 SEP 2022

It feels unusual and somewhat out-of-place for the opening concert of a major orchestra’s new season not to be conducted by its music director, particularly in their first official season. But that is the case for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Its new music director Nathalie Stutzmann is currently in Brussels, Belgium, conducting Tchaikovsky’s opera, Pikovaya Dama (“The Queen of Spades”) at La Monnaie, the National Opera of Belgium.

Instead, guest conductor Peter Oundjian led the celebratory opener on Thursday evening at Atlanta Symphony Hall. A familiar name to ASO audiences, Oundjian most recently ascended the ASO podium in May 2021.

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Following the traditional patriotic kick-off of the season with a rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, Oundjian and the ASO were joined onstage by a long-time friend of the orchestra, the venerable pianist Emanuel Ax, for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B♭ major.

It was a change in the original order of the program, atypical in that such programs don’t often begin with a featured guest artist performing a time-honored canonical work before proceeding to a contemporary piece. But we were already in the world of the out-of-ordinary, so why not? (A rhetorical question, which Oundjian spent way too much time answering to the audience.)

Ax gave the Mozart concerto an amiable, comfortable performance, neither too hot nor too cold, like an old friend who stopped by for a visit, but likewise nothing revelatory.

Venerable pianist Emanuel Ax solos in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 with the ASO and guest conductor Peter Oundjian. (credit: Rand Lines)

Venerable pianist Emanuel Ax solos in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 with the ASO and guest conductor Peter Oundjian. (credit: Rand Lines)

Next came To Awaken the Sleeper by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, a setting for narrator and orchestra of texts by James Baldwin.

Baldwin (1924 – 1987) was an acclaimed American writer and expatriate. His output included essays, novels, plays, and poems that address personal psychological themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class within the context of complex social changes in mid-twentieth century America, such as the civil rights movement and, later, gay liberation.

Thompson chose three texts from Baldwin’s writings for his piece.

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The first is a short excerpt from “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis.” Although her public heyday was decades ago, Davis (b. 1944) remains a well-known American political activist, feminist, and Marxist who has long advocated for the abolition of police and prisons, black liberation, and Palestinian solidarity. She was twice nominated for vice president by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), of which she was a long-time member. No surprise, in that Baldwin was an advocate for turning the United States from capitalism to socialism. And yet, the selected passage reads:

“So be it. We cannot awaken [the] sleeper, and God knows we have tried. We must do what we can do [to] fortify and save each other … [We know that democracy is] the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in us.”

More extensive excerpts from Baldwin’s 1972 essay “No Name in the Street” address the author’s perspectives on injustice and power in the United States.

After a spacious section of music alone, a brief passage from a speech to the National Press Club Baldwin gave on December 10, 1986, a year before his death, concludes the narration.

Composer Joel Thompson narrates his To Awaken the Sleeper, featuring texts by James Baldwin. (credit: Rand Lines)

Composer Joel Thompson narrates his To Awaken the Sleeper, featuring texts by James Baldwin. (credit: Rand Lines)

Giving Baldwin’s texts to an orchestra-backed narrator rather than have them sung was wise, given the nature of Baldwin’s prose, which is strongly oratorical. Thompson, as narrator, delivers them well (and from memory). However, Symphony Hall is unfriendly to spoken words, even amplified speech, whether a narration with music or a pre-concert talk by a conductor. I felt that much more got lost in that acoustical shuffle, at least from where I was sitting.

Given that the music serves primarily as a framework for the narrative, that can be problematic. Raucous for the most but hardly cacophonic, the music by itself has tensile strength but also ascends at times to lush textures and grandiose emotions. One could wonder how the music would fare independently of the narration, given that its structure and momentum principally serve the text and its socio-political message, which it does quite well.

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To Awaken the Sleeper will have its UK premiere on November 6 at Barbican Hall in London with the London Symphony Orchestra. It will also be performed again in June 2023 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work, on a program with music by two other African-American composers: Adolphus Hailstork’s Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed and Alvin Singleton’s 56 Blows.

This week’s ASO concerts are certainly not the last time Atlantans will encounter Thompson’s music this season. In early December, The Atlanta Opera will perform Thompson’s chamber opera, The Snowy Day, based on the children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats, at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College.

ASO1003 cover art

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After intermission came the Symphonic Dances of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a piece with which the ASO is intimately familiar, having played it many times since they first performed it in 1964; even more so that they also recorded with Robert Spano at the helm for a 2011 album for ASO Media. (And despite the spelling “Rachmaninov” on the disc and in this week’s program booklet, in the United States, it is legally and correctly “Rachmaninoff” as is on his U.S. citizenship papers.)

That matter of Rachmaninoff’s acquired U.S. citizenship is nowhere more pertinent to his music than with this set of three Symphonic Dances. In addition to being his last major composition, it is his only piece written in its entirety while he was living in the United States.

While the ASO virtually has the work in its back pocket, the musicians, under Oundjian’s baton, did not slack and performed it with solid musical investment. A happy ending for this season-launching concert.

The ASO will repeat this program Saturday, September 24, at 8:00 pm at Atlanta Symphony 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.