Mark Gresham | 6 JAN 2023
In a rare Wednesday evening concert, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed to a sold-out house sans conductor. Led by concertmaster David Coucheron, the program of familiar music by Bach, Grieg, and Vivaldi happily lifted the spirits.
It was what the concert presenting industry calls a “special,” performed at Symphony Hall only on Wednesday. Then on Thursday night, the orchestra took it on a “road trip” to Reinhardt University’s Falany Performing Arts Center in Waleska, Georgia, and will perform it again on Saturday afternoon at Spivey Hall in Morrow, Georgia. Like Wednesday’s performance, those two concerts are both sold out.
An ensemble of eleven orchestra members opened the concert with Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). It is my personal favorite of the Brandenburgs, and at 10 minutes duration is the shortest of the six. The scoring is unusual: three violins, three violas, three cellos, plus contrabass and harpsichord.
There is no tempo marking for the opening movement in the score, but the common practice is “Allegro” or “Allegro moderato.” Coucheron, as the lead violin, set the tempo at a rapid “Allegro” in this instance, giving it a driving forward motion rather than a more moderate dancelike pace. That gives more virtuosic brilliance to the solos, which each violin, viola, and cello is afforded, however brief. The first violin, of course, has the larger share, but everyone has a moment in the spotlight. With its last bar-and-a-half, the movement ends with an emphatic full-orchestra unison statement in its home key of G major.
he only indication of the Adagio middle movement in the score is a pair of chords, a Phrygian half-cadence in E minor (IV6-V in that key). The supposed intent is for the harpsichordist to improvise a cadenza ahead of it (artfully executed by keyboardist Peter Marshall). Then, the half-cadence, played by the whole ensemble, sets up anticipation for the final movement.
But instead of E minor, the music jumps happily back into the original G major for the concluding “Allegro” movement, a swinging dance in 12/8 meter that serves as a buoyant complement to the 4/4 first movement.
The violins and violas played standing rather than seated, a practice that has become more favored these days among small professional string orchestras. How much that contributed to the vivacity of the performance may be uncertain, but what was most convincing was the intense feeling of musical engagement and interplay among the musicians, which was as visible as it was audible. It was a vibrant, delightfully auspicious start to the evening.
Likewise compelling was From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style by 19th-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907). (Norwegian title: Fra Holbergs tid: Suite i gammel stil)
Coucheron’s natural feeling for the music of his native countryman came across in leading this Suite, again from the concertmaster’s desk, again with the violins and violas standing for the performance.
The Suite’s title pays tribute to Ludvig Holberg (1684 – 1754), a Norwegian writer, philosopher, and historian who was a contemporary of Bach and Vivaldi and is considered the founder of modern Danish and Norwegian literature when the two countries were a dual monarchy.
Originally written for piano in 1884 and later arranged by the composer for string orchestra, Grieg based the Suite’s five movements on eighteenth-century dance forms in celebration of the bicentennial of Holberg’s birth.
It’s a worthy staple of string orchestra repertoire that too often gets “phoned in” by conductors, but this conductorless instance was a persuasive performance, rounding out a solid first half of the concert.
After intermission came the program’s marquee attraction, Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Coucheron took center stage as the violin soloist, leading a slightly smaller ASO than the ensemble that played the Holberg Suite.
While Grieg adapted characteristics of Baroque forms for his Holberg Suite, Vivaldi did something with the Four Seasons that would become common in Grieg’s day: He created four concertos that were essentially tone poems, descriptive of the yearly cycle of seasonal changes Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.
In Wednesday’s performance of this perennial favorite, what we got from the ASO was no rigid “sewing machine” performance. Instead, the orchestra presented a visceral, painterly description of each season, with Coucheron’s solo violin a rhetorical narrative running through and over each scene. We got a set of dramatic musical panoramas, whether revelers greeting the arrival of Spring, the impetuous weather of Summer, a celebration of the Autumn harvest, or the severe breath of Winter winds.
After multiple enthusiastic ovations, Coucheron and the orchestra reprised a portion of “Summer” as an encore. Then with a big grin, Coucheron gestured with his head against his hands as if preparing for sleep, making it clear to the audience that it was time for the orchestra to go home. And the happy audience, too. It was a satisfyingly well-spent evening for all. ■
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra repeated this program on Thursday, January 5, at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia, and performs again on Saturday afternoon, January 7, at Spivey Hall.