Mark Gresham | 4 MAR 2023
Thursday’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by resident conductor Jerry Hou, spotlighted two works by noted living women composers on the program’s first half: Joan Tower’s 1920/2019 and Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds, the latter featuring guest pianist Awadagin Pratt as soloist. In both cases, these were the first performances by the ASO.
The program’s second half was devoted to a modern masterpiece: Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which they last performed in April 2019 with Robert Spano conducting.
If you are confused by seeing the term “resident conductor,” know that the ASO gave Hou a promotion this season, and with it came a title change from “associate conductor” to “resident conductor.” Hou is also a resident conductor at the Grand Teton Music Festival, and he continues his other ASO post as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Hou and the ASO opened the program with Tower’s 1920/2019, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its Project 19, that orchestra’s initiative to commission and premiere 19 new works by women composers honoring the 2020 centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1920 was the year when the 19th Amendment was ratified and adopted, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Tower began composing in 2019 amid the growing #MeToo movement. Tower indicates in her notes about the 14-minute piece: “These two years — 1920 and 2019 — were probably the two most historically significant years for the advancement of women in society.”
Thudding, heavy orchestral chords ominously open the piece, which takes on a primary persona of persistence despite its overall episodic restlessness. Tower’s writing possesses a bustling adventurousness and a sense of determination and grit.
The 84-year-old Tower was in the audience on Thursday, and Hou called on her to come up on stage to take a bow.
Jessie Montgomery’s one-movement concerto for piano and string orchestra, Rounds, was written for pianist Awadagin Pratt, who was the ASO’s guest soloist of the evening.
The title references Montgomery’s treatment of the rondo form, particularly a twist inspired by fractal geometry. More accurately, it is a more straightforward example of recursion, where a form appears repeated as a smaller part within itself. In the case of Rounds, Montgomery’s “A” section of the rondo form is itself a rondo form.
The 41-year-old African-American composer also found inspiration in T.S. Eliot’s poems, Four Quartets.
The music of Rounds is priarily lyrical, although sections of dense, vividly colored chords aggressively intervene occasionally, clearly meted out as important signposts within the formal structure.
Pratt’s playing was impressively convincing. The solo piano cadenza, which included playing directly on the piano’s strings in a zither-like manner, was partly improvised by him.
Pratt returned to the stage to perform an encore that felt very close in many ways to Montgomery’s piece, despite being composed over 300 years earlier: Les Barricades Mystérieuses (“The Mysterious Barricades”) by François Couperin, a rondeau written for harpsichord in 1717 and representative of the arpeggiated style brisé of French Baroque keyboard music. The recurring rondeau section alternates with three couplets of varying length and harmonic direction, producing a sonically seductive stream of music that shimmers and seems to presage, in miniature, the recursive concepts found in Montgomery’s Rounds three centuries later.
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra provided a grand conclusion to the evening. One of the essential works of 20th-century orchestral repertoire, the five-movement Concerto offered all the musicians, in concertante mode, some degree of spotlight. Hou and the ASO gave it a performance that highlighted revelation of its inner workings without losing its impactful exuberance. A great conclusion to a program loaded with vitality. ■