Mark Gresham | 7 OCT 2022
The long-awaited moment arrived on Thursday evening as Nathalie Stutzmann made her debut as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. For Stutzmann, a well-established operatic contralto turned in-demand conductor, it was fitting that every work on the program included the vocal instrument as either soloist or in chorus.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s “Ah! perfido” sung by Atlanta-based soprano Talise Trevignean. The stand-alone dramatic scena and concert aria for soprano and orchestra is a famous vocal showpiece but, most curiously, has been previously programmed only once by the ASO, back in 1955 with soprano Zinka Milanov and Henry Sopkin conducting.
Despite its incongruous Op. 65 assignment by publishers, “Ah! perfido” is early Beethoven, written and first performed in 1796. In the respective texts of the recitative by the popular librettist Metastasio and the anonymous aria that follows, the singer wavers between desiring divine punishment for her lover and showing mercy.
Trevigne delivered the vocal part with agility and glowing vocal color, well-supported but not overwhelmed by the orchestra, which was assured but seemed a little burly at times, even for such early Beethoven.
Atlanta audiences will recall Trevignean’s performances with The Atlanta Opera as Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a highly successful March 2020 production that was suddenly cut short by the pandemic, and later that fall, mid-pandemic, as Nedda in Pagliacci as part of the company’s innovative “Big Tent” series. Upcoming, she goes to perform with the Detroit Opera this November 12, 18, and 20 as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
The vocal gears shifted from solo to chorus in another work about personal human relationship, the world premiere of Words for Departure by Hilary Purrington, a “choral symphony” setting of texts by 20th-century American poet Louise Bogan. Bogan was named the fourth Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress in 1945 and was the first woman to hold the title.
In her program notes, Purrington writes: “Over the course of three poems, Bogan describes and reflects on the end of a romantic relationship.” In this way, Words for Departure pairs very nicely with the preceding Beethoven scena, although the musical languages of the two works are over two centuries apart.
Commissioned in 2020 by the League of American Orchestras and completed that same year, it was initially to be presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Stutzmann is principal guest conductor. As with many things over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, and Stutzmann brought the world premiere to Atlanta instead.
The agitated opening movement begins with a loud, spiked staccato chord, over a quiet C♯ drone, from which an incessant pattern of eighth notes on that pitch emerges in the piano. After 37 bars of orchestra developing this texture, the altos of the chorus softly sneak in, humming the C♯ drone, followed in the next measure by the tenors on the same note, emulating the piano’s urgent rhythm but with the repeated text “Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten.”
The sopranos then enter on a carefully-notated but free-sounding melody with the evocative words:
on the warm summer pavements,
The window-sills were wet
from rain in the night.
Birds scattered and settled
As among grotesque trees.
After which the music rose to a full-voiced tutti:
nothing looked beyond.
Then suddenly quiet again, and melodic:
hour from hour,
The afternoon sifted coolness
And people drew together
in streets becoming deserted.
The music soon rose in another intense wave, then again suddenly hushed and reintroduced the repetitious eighth-note pattern of the beginning, “Nothing is remembered, nothing forgotten,” under the continuing poem’s final seven lines. At last came a final crescendo to an emphatic tutti end on the words “Nothing forgotten, nothing left behind.”
The second movement (“I have remembered you”) is introduced by a low drone, with a slowly rocking major second interval soon entering above it in the French horns, before exploring the expressive melodic and textural powers of unison and two-part mixed chorus. Colorful orchestral lines weave around them in the woodwinds, harp, and piano.
The final movement opens with a declamatory five-bars of unaccompanied chorus:
Go from mine to the other.
It offers an admonition about going on with life: to depart from a relationship and allow for some uncertainty, and, it seems, with some joy and hope in the process. The choral part ends quietly and unaccompanied, but the orchestra has the final reflective word as it brings the work to a close.
At last, came the substantial anchor of the evening’s programming, the natural and perennial audience draw: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its choral “Ode to Joy” in the final movement.
Unfortunately, and entirely unexpectedly, this particular performance led by Stutzmann was highly problematic and in far too many ways to enumerate. They essentially fall symptomatically into issues of balance, tempo, and phrasing (or its absence). But mostly, the causal roots seem to be a musical expression that came from passions of the moment rather than a dramatic arc that developed along the music’s overall architecture. That goes for all of the moments.
Stutzmann’s tempos alone brought back to mind the specter of jackrabbit performance of the Ninth in April 2019 under the baton of Thomas Søndergård (in which tempos were especially egregious, in particular, the “Alla marcia,” which tenor Thomas Cooley miraculously survived).
The orchestra did not feel cohesive in Thursday’s concert, not always together. And again not balanced. But more telling is that phrasing simply did not seem to exist throughout most of the work, something conspicuously at odds with Stutzmann’s previous appearances on the ASO podium (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, Mozart’s Requiem, for three examples from standard repertoire).
Another shortcoming, though less than the things described above, was the placement of the solo quartet (Trevigne with mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Robin Tritschler, and baritone Leon Košavić) behind the orchestra, just in front of the chorus. (Same grave mistake as with Mozart’s Requiem this past March, but at least with Mozart, there is an historical context that is arguable.) They should have been placed in front of the orchestra. Outstanding voices, but they were simply outgunned.
Near redemption was brought about by the entrance of the ASO Chorus in the final movement — the men of the chorus with their initial “Freude!” then the full chorus soon after. Here the sound of the Stutzmann era ASO Chorus seems to be developing with a more “vocal” texture to the historically rhythmically-driven ASO Chorus of yore. Yet, none of its cohesiveness was lost as a body of singers. That itself was ear-opening in the most positive of ways.
Nevertheless, from the “Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto” (the sung text “Ihr stürtz nieder, Millionen?”) onward, the rest of the movement came across as episodic rather than a compelling dramatic arc driving to the final bar. All in all, a baffling, outlier performance for this orchestra and chorus, for which Beethoven’s Ninth has been a familiar signature piece for decades. However, we wish all of the performers the best of good fortune for the remaining two concerts.
The program will be repeated Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm at Atlanta Symphony Hall.
In addition, concert patrons will be tune in from home to a livestream of the for the Saturday evening performance or enjoy a free presentation of the livestream on the Piazza at the Woodruff Arts Center. Info at aso.org. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Nathalie Stutzmann: nathaliestutzmann.com
- Talise Trevigne: arbourartists.com/roster/talise-trevigne
- Jennifer Johnson Cano: jenniferjohnsoncano.net
- Robin Tritschler: askonasholt.com/artists/robin-tritschler
- Leon Košavić: leon-kosavic.com
- Hilary Purrington: hilarypurrington.com