Mark Gresham | 10 JUN 2023
Two works by well-known Russian composers were paired with a striking violin concerto by a contemporary female Scottish composer in Thursday night’s penultimate 2022/23 season program by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The ASO was led by guest conductor Andrew Manze and violinist Leila Josefowicz was the featured soloist.
Night on Bald Mountain, as we know it today, is actually the culmination of a series of compositions by Modest Mussorgsky, beginning with his “musical picture” called St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain. Completed in 1867, it was one of the first tone poems by a Russian composer, inspired by the legend of a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Eve at Bald Mountain. However, Mussorgsky’s mentor, Mily Balakirev, refused to perform it. The composer made several unsuccessful attempts to incorporate the music into subsequent projects, and it remained unperformed during his lifetime.
Five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov arranged the work, subtitling it a “fantasy for orchestra,” based on Mussorgsky’s final version of the music used in his unfinished opera, The Fair at Sorochyntsi. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “corrected” version is the one we know today, and that opened Thursday night’s ASO concert.
Night on Bald Mountain eventually achieved popularity with the general public after being featured in the Disney film Fantasia. When not relegated to stereotypical use in Halloween-themed community concerts, it can still be an effective curtain raiser — which was true enough of Thursday night’s performance.
The program then took an very different turn.
Leila Josefowicz had performed the American premiere of Helen Grime’s Violin Concerto this past November with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds. She performed it again with Storgårds in April in its Canadian premiere with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, then again three weeks ago with Detroit Symphony Orchestra and conductor Daniel Bjaranson before bringing it to Atlanta for this week’s concerts with Manze at the helm.
Grime’s Violin Concerto is one continuous 22-minute movement, albeit in three large sections linked by dreamlike interludes. A distinctive personality shines throughout. The opening is intense and unapologetic in its punctuated rhythmic aggression. However, a more profound sense of existential mystery exists beneath the surface of this wild and chaotic beast. The violent, virtuosic music covering the violin’s complete compass contrasts with a goodly portion of more delicate and reflective material.
Josefowicz exudes a genuine passion and excitement for such repertoire that steps beyond the conventional and she delivers it with a complete toolkit of virtuosity. Blending that and Grime’s challenging, riveting Concerto, we got a rich tapestry of music that effervesced into a captivating performance.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 (1936) represents a significant turning point in his compositional style. As with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written two years earlier, Rachmaninoff was beginning to divest himself of the overshadowing early influences of Tchaikovsky. While the Second Symphony (1907) enjoys greater popularity, this Third Symphony stands out as more expressively Russian, especially evident in the lively dance rhythms of the finale.
Comprised of only three movements, with the central movement serving the dual purpose of slow movement and scherzo combined, the Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 employs a cyclic form, skillfully weaving in a concise and malleable motto theme that subtly incorporates references to the plainchant Dies irae. The nearly 40-minute symphony gains a heightened emotional impact through its leaner style.
Although perhaps not as uniquely inspired as Grimes’ Concerto, this performance by Manze and the ASO was genuinely satisfying and brought out the best in the work’s emotion and musicality, encapsulating a sense of brooding nostalgia for a distant past through melancholic melodies; even implying that the final movement’s apparent outward energy and confidence carry with them more profound implications.
But there was more to Thursday night: In advance of the orchestral concert, eight members of the ASO presented one of the orchestra’s occasional “Thursday only” pre-concert chamber recitals. The delightful, somewhat lighter program consisted of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Duo No. 1 in G major, K. 423, arranged for two cellos, performed by cellists Thomas Carpenter and Brad Ritchie; Bachianas Brasiliaras No. 6 (1938) by Heitor Villa-Lobos, performed by principal flute Christina Smith and acting/associate principal bassoon Anthony Georgeson; and a woodwind quartet piece entitled Motion by Alyssa Morris, performed by flutist Todd Skitch, oboist Samuel Nemec, clarinetist Marci Gurnow, and bassoonist Laura Najarian. All in all a refreshing appetizer in advance of the main course.
Except for the once-off Thursday chamber recital, the ASO will perform the orchestral program once more on Saturday evening at Symphony Hall. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Andrew Manze: andrewmanze.com
- Leila Josefowicz: leilajosefowicz.com