Mark Gresham | 14 APR 2023
Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra proved an impressive performance that brilliantly countered the day’s gloomy, drooly weather. French guest conductor Stéphane Denève led the orchestra in music by Carlos Simon, Britten, and Berlioz, with the esteemed violinist Augustin Hadelich as guest soloist.
As a pre-concert appetizer on Thursday only, a 6:45 pm chamber concert offered a pair of suitable works. Violinist Robert Anemone and cellist Thomas Carpenter performed Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s F: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor played by violinist Rachel Ostler, cellist Daniel Laufer, and pianist Choo Choo Hu. The orchestral concert proper began about a half hour after this gratifying chamber concert concluded.
Carlos Simon is an American composer and educator born in Washington, DC in 1986, and raised in Atlanta. He has described his native city as a significant influence on his music, both in terms of the city’s rich cultural heritage and how his experiences growing up in Atlanta have informed his creative work.
Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, which opened the concert, is filled with driving rhythms, bold harmonies, and beautifully effective orchestration in its fusion of traditional classical forms with contemporary musical idioms and intense communication of powerful emotional themes.
ASO acting/associate principal cello Daniel Laufer performed a significant cello solo in the piece, providing a central moment of emotional introspection and reflection amidst the surrounding music’s otherwise busy, energetic, and emphatic character.
If there is one complaint, it’s that at only five minutes duration, the piece is too brief. The materials it is built upon can easily allow for a more extended work of eight to 12 minutes. That said: it’s typically wiser to be too short than too long, if obliged to choose between one or the other.
Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto (1939) is a highly emotional and deeply personal work that reflects Britten’s anxieties about the impending outbreak of World War II, marked by intense lyricism, complex harmonies, and virtuosic solo writing. Britten himself described the concerto as “a very difficult and emotional work.”
Written in three movements played without pause, the Violin Concerto requires a high level of technical and interpretive skill to perform successfully, and renowned violinist Augustin Hadelich is considered one of its leading interpreters. Hadelich recorded it with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in 2018 under the direction of Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
In this performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Hadelich brought impressive virtuosity and sensitivity to the music’s emotional nuances and an astute ability to convey its intense drama to the audience.
For an encore, Hadelich performed the “Sarabande” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita no 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.
After intermission came Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz.
Programmatically explicit, the Symphonie self-references the composer as a lovesick youth enamored with Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen perform with a theatrical company touring Paris. He instantly fell in love with Smithson, inspiring the music.
In Berlioz’s storyline, the protagonist takes a not-quite-fatal dose of opium, resulting in fantastic dreams about his love, which evolve into more nightmarish hallucinations. But it takes a while to get to that point.
Just before the symphony’s final movement, entitled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” ASO principal percussionist Joseph Petrasek took a position offstage to play two enormous bronze church bells. At measure 102, he began to ring a three-note death knell (C, C, G) that repeated occasionally over an ominous “Dies Irae” plainchant played by bassoons and tubas. The ASO first used these custom bells for Symphonie fantastique in January 2014. This week’s concerts are the fourth time the orchestra has used them.*
Denève and the orchestra worked the final movement into a frenzied delirium that brought the evening to a thrilling end. The orchestra was fully engaged and unified as a musical force throughout the work; the brass section, in particular, played with a tightness of ensemble not heard recently.
Conducting without a score, Denève clearly has the Symphonie fantastique thoroughly internalized, freeing and enhancing his interaction with the orchestra. It was a fabulous performance that demonstrated what the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is capable of under a capable and inspired conductor fully prepared to lead. ■
The ASO will repeat this program on Saturday evening, April 15, at Symphony Hall.
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Stéphane Denève: stephanedeneve.com
- Augustin Hadelich: augustin-hadelich.com