Mark Gresham | 11 NOV 2022
There are some symphonic concerts that, most curiously, draw only an unexpectedly small audience but prove to be musically quite outstanding. Such was the case with Thursday’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu, perhaps not yet a household name on this side of the Atlantic, and with well-known world-class violinist Gil Shaham as guest soloist.
Perhaps the absence of core repertoire by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, or Tchaikovsky was responsible for the number of empty seats ahead of me that typically fill with known subscribers on a Thursday night. If so, that’s a rather unfortunate, limiting criteria for attendance. In any case, the no-shows missed out on an outstanding performance by the ASO under Lintu’s baton, including a captivating account of the Korngold Violin Concerto by Shaham.
The concert opened with The Oceanides, op. 73 (1914), a single-movement tone poem by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The title references Greek mythology, in which Oceanides are water nymphs who inhabit the Mediterranean Sea. The 10-minute piece conjures both the nymphs at play and the broad majesty of the sea.
This was the first performance of the work by the ASO. Still, their extensive experience playing other music of Sibelius lent itself to this performance under Lintu’s hand. The music gradually grew from placidness to an expansive climax that was neither agitated nor desperate in its forward motion, then subsided.
Next, Gil Shaham joined Lintu and the ASO onstage as soloist for the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 by Erich Korngold.
Born in Brünn, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czech Republic), Korngold was a child prodigy. As an adolescent, he composed a ballet and two one-act operas. At age 23, his full-length opera, Die tote Stadt, premiered in Hamburg and Cologne to great success. He became a professor of music at the Vienna State Academy in 1931, but with the rise of the Nazi Third Reich, and at the request of Hollywood director Max Reinhardt, Korngold moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1934 to write film scores, beginning with Reinhardt’s 1935 film, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold wrote scores for 16 Hollywood films, with two winning Oscars.
Although Korngold wrote his Violin Concerto during the late 1930s, it wasn’t published until 1945, once World War II was over, because he refused to publish his new concert music while the Nazi regime remained in power.
Like much of his concert music, the Violin Concerto incorporates themes used in his motion picture scores. The first movement draws themes from Another Dawn (1937) and Juarez (1939), the second from Anthony Adverse (1936), and the third from The Prince and the Pauper (1937).
Shaham recorded Korngold’s Violin Concerto with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra almost 30 years ago for Deutsche Grammophon (439 886-2). The ASO first performed it for the first time in 1999, with Shaham as the soloist and Yoel Levi conducting. Ten years later, the ASO programmed it a second time with violinist James Ehnes as soloist and Donald Runnicles conducting.
This week’s concerts mark the third time for the ASO. In a recent interview for EarRelevant, Shaham noted, “I do think I play it very differently today from how I played it back then,” referring to his youthful recording with Previn. And while it is perhaps the more thoughtful interpretation of a more seasoned performer, it is clear from Thursday’s concert that the Violin Concerto remains totally vital in his hands: warm, vibrant, and full of unabashed joy.
Interestingly, these performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are the first time Shaham and Lintu have worked together in concert. But they will join forces again for the Korngold Violin Concerto on April 27 and 28, 2023, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.
After much enthusiastic applause, Shaham returned to the stage to perform an encore, Isolation Rag by Scott Wheeler, an attractive piece he first performed at the virtual-only 2020 Dresden Music Festival (Dresdner Musikfestspiele) during the pandemic.
Here is the video of Shaham playing Isolation Rag as part of Dresdner Musikfestspiele’s 24-hour Livestream Festival, “Music Never Sleeps DMF” on May 16, 2020:
After intermission came a contemporary piece more familiar to Atlanta audiences: Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra.
The Concerto for Orchestra had its premiere at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia on June 12, 2002, with conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, which commissioned the work. But it was Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra who recorded it in 2004 for Telarc (CD80620) along with Higdon’s City Scape. The ASO’s most recent performances were in September 2019 under Spano’s baton.
As one might expect, Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra seems continually fated for comparison against those of Béla Bartók (1943) and Witold Lutosławski (1954), especially Bartók because it has five movements. However, the two composers handle them differently. Far better it is to be held up to those yardsticks than ignored or dismissed, and despite their long looming shadows, Higdon’s has earned a favorable reputation over the last 20 years on its own merit.
It is quite the showpiece, at once technically demanding for the orchestra and accessible for the audience. It generously sprinkles solos among the orchestra’s principal players while offering plenty of opportunity for vigorous workouts by the various orchestral sections. Especially notable is the fourth movement for percussion only, which grows in complexity and intensity over its course, then dives without interruption into the energetic, full orchestra finale.
Lintu and the ASO give the Concerto for Orchestra a lively and confident performance that, like the rest of the program, showed off the orchestra at its best. We need to see and hear more ASO concerts producing that impact and satisfaction. Hopefully, the ASO will invite Lintu to return to the podium soon. ■
The Atlanta Sympho ny Orchestra will repeat this program on Saturday, Novemeber 12, 2022, at Atlanta Symphony Hall.