Stephen Mulligan leads the Atlanta Sympohony Orchestra in Weber's Overture to "Der Freischütz." (credit: Rand Lines)

Sibelius spotlighted in Stephen Mulligan’s return to the ASO podium

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
March 16 & 18, 2023
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Stephen Mulligan, conductor; Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone.
Carl Maria von WEBER: Der Freischütz Overture
Tyshawn SOREY: Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith)
Jean SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2

Mark Gresham | 17 MAR 2023

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a program of music by Weber, Sorey, and Sibelius, led by guest conductor Stephen Mulligan, with saxophonist Timothy McAllister as guest soloist.

Mulligan is well-known to Atlanta audiences. Starting in the fall of 2017, he was assistant and then associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for three seasons as well as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. In his first season with the ASO, Mulligan stepped in on short notice for three classical subscription programs in six weeks, earning him the nickname “Superman” among some orchestra members.

Earlier this season, Mulligan had return engagements with the Arkansas and Amarillo Symphony Orchestras and debuts with Dallas Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and the Minnesota Orchestra. This summer, he returns to Cincinnati Opera as its resident conductor.

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Mulligan and the ASO opened the concert with Overture to “Der Freischütz” by Carl Maria von Weber. The 37-bar opening “Adagio” gently introduced the piece though the agitated “Molto vivace” section that followed felt a little low-voltage until bar 279, at which point it roared all the way home to the end. Often heard as a concert opener, this was an average but acceptable performance, not electrifying.

Saxophonist Timothy McAllister. (credit: Rand Lines)

Saxophonist Timothy McAllister. (credit: Rand Lines)

Next, saxophonist Timothy McAllister joined Mulligan and the ASO as the soloist for the U.S. premiere of Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith) by Tyshawn Sorey.

Billed as a “saxophone concerto,” the piece was co-commissioned by the Lucerne Festival and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as part of “Amplifying Voices,” a New Music USA initiative powered by the Sphinx Ventures Fund, with additional support from ASCAP and the Sorel Organization.

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However, the piece came across as something other than a concerto, comprised almost entirely of long, sustained notes for both orchestra and soloist. The score required no technical virtuosity of the soloist at any time; thus, none displayed by McAllister, who nevertheless drew a quite pleasing tone and fine intonation from his alto sax. McAllister is a professor of saxophone at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, which has a reputation for its saxophone program spanning decades. McAllister himself studied there with Donald J. Sinta. It would be good to have him return sometime to play a more formidable work to give Atlanta audiences a better idea of his capabilities.

Although some beautiful sounds emerged from the orchestra and soloist in the 20-minute work, this tribute to avant-garde jazz trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith is somewhat lugubrious. It hangs in the air, moving at a glacial tempo without glacial power. Conceptually, that does provide a study for attentive listening, which generally works best when an audience is prepared for that kind of experience.

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The preceding Overture did not assist in that regard, and perhaps something more sizzling, brief, and contemporary work might have better preceded Sorey’s Adagio, setting it up through heightened contrast.

The concert’s second half picked up considerably with the Symphony No. 2 of Jean Sibelius, although it seemed Mulligan and the orchestra slightly missed capturing the overarching arc of the piece. The earlier movements felt a bit episodic and slightly loose in terms of ensemble, but that tightened up considerably in the “Allegro moderato” finale, with a “Molto largamente” coda that ended grandly.

The ASO performs the program again on Saturday evening, March 18, at Symphony Hall.


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.