Guest conductor Roderick Cox leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." (credit: Rand Lines)

Atlanta Symphony harmonizes with late change in conductor and program

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
February 23 & 24, 2023
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Roderick Cox, conductor; Conrad Tao, piano.
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy
Maurice RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G
William DAWSON: Negro Folk Symphony

Mark Gresham | 25 FEB 2023

Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began somewhat differently than planned. According to the program booklet’s insert, guest conductor Ryan Bancroft had to withdraw from the week’s concerts due to illness. In his place, the orchestra called upon Macon, Georgia, native Roderick Cox to lead the performances.

The change in conductors also called for one other change: Zoltán Kodály’s much-anticipated Háry János Suite was off the program. Instead, the concert opened with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s popular overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet. It’s an essential piece of repertoire that the orchestra knows well. Still, it came across in this instance as not particularly passionate or inspired, even though the ASO has given some genuinely moving performances of it on previous occasions.

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Next, pianist Conrad Tao joined Cox and the orchestra as soloist for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. This concerto was Ravel’s penultimate composition.

Ravel suggested that he was not aiming to be profound with this concerto but to entertain. Jazz and Basque folk music are known to have been among the influences upon Ravel in writing it.

Most intriguing, however, is a recent theory about the last movement, posted in a video by Tao on Facebook. Here’s a transcription, edited for length and clarity, of what Tao had to say:

“I’ve been playing the piece for nearly 15 years, and yet I happened upon a theory… I’ve always been a little bit intrigued by the final movement of this piece, so… I suddenly found myself inspired to look up if Ravel had cats, that this last movement might be at least in part inspired by, as I discovered, Ravel’s entire family of Siamese cats, which… he observed obsessively, and claimed that he could speak ‘Cat-ease.’ In fact, there is a cat duo in his opera [L’enfant et les sortilèges] for two cats meowing at each other. Ever since I landed on this possibility that this last movement might be about Ravel’s cats, the movement has made a new kind of sense to me.”

This was not the first time that Tao and Cox have performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto together. A quick internet search turned up a performance in November 2021 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, lending at least one good rationale for choosing Cox to fill in for the indisposed Bancroft as conductor.

Ravel’s concerto is a brilliant piece, especially in this instance, given Tao’s formidable capabilities as a pianist, as there are technical hurdles aplenty in all three movements. The lively “Allegramente” first movement opened with the crack of a whip, playing upon the character of the aforementioned Basque folk and jazz idioms. The second movement, “Adagio assai,” possessed a certain Mozartian tranquility, and the “Presto” was a most riotous if short finale.

Conrad Tao is soloist in Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G major" with conductor Roderick Cox and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

Conrad Tao is soloist in Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G major” with conductor Roderick Cox and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

Even with clear influences from jazz in Ravel’s Concerto, it was a bit of a surprise for Tao to return to both play and sing his encore: Billy Strahorn’s “Lush Life.” Tao’s version might have seemed radically edgy compared to familiar renditions of, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Esperanza Spalding, but it turns out there was a firm foundation behind Tao’s approach.

Album cover for Billy Strayhorn's "Don't Mind If I Do" (1964)

Billy Strayhorn’s album, “Don’t Mind If I Do” (1964)

At the end of intermission, in a brief one-on-one conversation, Tao revealed that his performance was directly inspired by Strayhorn’s own live recording of “Lush Life” (on the 1964 album Don’t Mind If I Do), the only recording in which Strayhorn sings as well as plays the song.

The complex rendition has an almost satirical touch, a musical cocktail with a twist of mockery as if the drama of loneliness and heartbreak isn’t taken quite as seriously by the performer as others might take it.

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William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) was an important African-American composer and teacher, respected and championed in his day by noted conductors of major orchestras. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was premiered in 1934 by no less than Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and broadcast nationwide over CBS Radio, eliciting an enthusiastic reception by music critics. Dawson revised the work in 1952.

William Dawson

William Dawson

The Negro Folk Symphony is clearly a work of its era, filled with turbulent drama, almost cinematic sensuousness, and melodic directness in each of its three movements with their picturesque titles: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!”

Cox demonstrated a genuine grasp of Dawson’s music, drawing forth an engaged and boldly energized performance from the orchestra, making it the personal pinnacle of his night on the ASO podium.


About the author:
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.