Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for his final time as its Principal Guest Conductor. (credit: Rand Lines)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra delivers powerful, emotional Berg and Mahler in Sir Donald Runnicles’ farewell performance as principal guest conductor

Despite loss of a rehearsal, the orchestra surmounted the challenging circumstances
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
May 4 & 6, 2023
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor; Irene Roberts, mezzo-soprano.
Alban BERG: Three excerpts from “Wozzeck”
Gustav MAHLER: Symphony No. 5

Mark Gresham | 9 MAY 2023

Tragedy struck on Wednesday when a gunman opened fire in a waiting room on the 11th floor of Northside Hospital Medical in Midtown Atlanta, killing one person and injuring four others. CNN reported that according to Atlanta Police Department Chief Darin Schierbaum, officers were first called to the location at 12:08 p.m., but the suspected shooter was able to carjack a vehicle and flee the scene.

Area schools, residences, and businesses, including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, went on lockdown for several hours, which was not lifted later in the afternoon.

According to an ASO spokesperson, the musicians were on lunch break when the call for lockdown protocol happened. Some were in the ASO building, and some sheltered in place where they were. Due to the lockdown, the orchestra lost a scheduled rehearsal of selections from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck that day. By the time the order was lifted, rehearsal time had passed, and the ASO dismissed the musicians for the day. Several insiders described the lockdown as a truly “rattling” experience.

  • AD ASO CS24
  • AD ASO CS22

Due to the nature of the situation, EarRelevant was offered and chose the option to review the ASO’s Saturday performance this week instead of our usual Thursday, given the expectation that while presented before a live audience, parts of Thursday evening could be a rehearsal, with all that implies.

Indeed, word came that principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles rehearsed two sections of the Berg after performing it, using a microphone so that the audience could hear instructions he was giving to the musicians. The orchestra then performed the entire Mahler Symphony No. 5 without further rehearsal. But all of that is second-hand knowledge. Our own first-hand experience of the program would have to wait for Saturday’s performance.

Sir Donald Runnicles (courtesy of ASO)

Sir Donald Runnicles (courtesy of ASO)

Saturday came, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played to a packed house. It was Sir Donald Runnicles’ final night on the podium as the ASO’s principal guest conductor, concluding a fond 23-year relationship with the orchestra.

The larger of the two works on Saturday’s program was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, for which Runnicles has a proven track record. The ASO last performed it in 2015 with Runnicles at the helm, paired with another Mahler work, the Rückert Lieder featuring mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor.

Irene Roberts (courtesy of ASO)

Irene Roberts (courtesy of ASO)

This time Runnicles shared the stage with another stellar mezzo-soprano soloist, Irene Roberts. But instead of additional Mahler, this time we heard three excerpts from Wozzeck by Alban Berg, arguably the most significant opera composed in the first half of the 20th century and certainly one of the most powerful.

The first two selections featured Roberts singing the role of Wozzeck’s ill-fated common-law wife Marie: The initial selection came from Act I, with a “Langsam” section from Scene 2 in which the titular Wozzeck has frightening visions, presented here with orchestra only, leading to Scene 3 introduced with military music in winds and percussion, with Marie briefly expressing admiration for a contingent of passing soldiers (“Soldaten, Soldaten sind schöner Burschen!” / “Soldiers, soldiers are handsome fellows!”). After they pass, she sings a lullaby of mixed love and resigned sadness to her illegitimate son (“Komm mein Bub! Was die Leuten wollen?! Bist du ein arm’ Hurenkin und Macht deiner Mutter doch so viel Freud’ mit deinem unehrlichen Geischt.” / “Come, my boy! What do people want?! You are a poor whorekin and make your mother so happy with your dishonest face.”)

 Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts sings excerpts from Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" with Sir Donald Runnicles conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts sings excerpts from Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” with Sir Donald Runnicles conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

Berg did not use traditional operatic forms in Wozzeck, opting instead for abstract forms more commonly associated with instrumental music to give each scene coherence. The second excerpt, Act III, Scene 1, was a theme and seven variations followed by a fugue. Marie sings of sin and forgiveness, first a line from 1 Peter 2:22 (“Und ist kein Betrug in seinem Munde erfunden worden…” / “And no deceit was invented in his mouth…”), then framing the rest, about a poor child without father or mother, within allusion to the story of Jesus and Mary Magdelene.

The final excerpt, Act III, scenes 4 and 5, were mainly presented instrumentally, with Roberts now singing as Marie’s son, who does not yet grasp the news that his mother is dead, his few measures of “Hopp, hopp” near the end as he rides his hobby horse.

The opera’s existential anxieties were well-delivered by the orchestra and Ms. Roberts’ superb singing with her beautifully rounded tone, emotional conveyance of the texts, and splendid musicianship — a voice we want to hear again soon.

As involved as they were, the Wozzeck excerpts were the smaller part of the program at just under 20 minutes, and the following intermission was about the same length. In contrast, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, from its opening trumpet fanfare to its thrilling conclusion, clocked in at over 70 minutes.

The trumpet solo that opens the first movement quotes the “Generalmarsch” of the Austro-Hungarian Army, introducing a tenebrous funeral march (“Trauermarsch”). The second movement, “Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz” (“Stormy, with greatest vehemence”), shared many elements with the first, but less strictly paced. Mahler paired the two movements as Part I of the Symphony.

Part II included only the third movement, a Scherzo marked “Kräftig, Nicht zu schnell” (“Powerful, not too fast”), in which Mahler unfolded and developed several waltz and ländler themes.

Sir Donald Runnicles leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 5." (credit: Rand Lines)

Sir Donald Runnicles leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5.” (credit: Rand Lines)

Movements four and five made up Part III, with the “Adagietto” fourth movement being critical to the Symphony’s total duration, as there is significant disagreement about how slow it should be. Thankfully, Runnicles’ approach was on the faster side of that spectrum versus the languorous tempo of Herbert von Karajan, which alone would add about another five minutes to the Symphony.

The “Allegro” Rondo-Finale fifth movement was a tour de force with copious contrapuntal features. Mahler develops several themes from its first few fragmentary measures while drawing others from the fourth and second movements.

In my March 2015 review of the ASO’s previous rendition of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony under Runnicles, I described the performance as “easily the orchestra’s best so far this year.” The same claim can arguably be made for Saturday’s performance. Quite impressive, and the entire concert left a strong impression. A genuinely honorable exit for Sir Donald Runnicles, with him and the ASO both at the top of their game despite the hurdles overcome this past week to get there.


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.

Read more by Mark Gresham.