Mark Gresham | 17 JUN 2023
Thursday evening This week’s concerts by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra mark the final performances in its 2022-23 classical subscription series, led by Nathalie Stutzmann, concluding her first official season as the orchestra’s music director. French pianist Lise de la Salle was the featured soloist in the program that included music by Wagner, Beethoven, and Ravel.
Thursday’s installment opened with the Overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. The overture focuses on musical themes that deal directly with the inner conflict of the opera’s hero, troubadour Tannhäuser, a singer torn between sacred and profane love.
Its opening theme (the “Pilgrims Chorus” from Act 3), first played quietly in clarinets, valve horns, and bassoons, and heroically in the trombones soon after, set the stage. A faster section introduced the “Venusberg” music, representing the sensual pleasures of Venus, which ultimately yielded to the returning pilgrim’s hymn underscored by busier strings. The music then rose to an epic conclusion in full orchestra.
Stutzmann had significantly rearranged the seating of the musicians from their standard practice for the occasions, placing the second violins across the stage from their accustomed seating, moving the cello section to where they had been, and placing the contrabasses behind the cellos on risers. A pair of harps were where the contrabasses formerly stood on the other side of the stage. It will be interesting to see how much Stutzmann adopts this practice next season, and whether guest conductors will utilize the traditional seating or be obliged (along with the orchestra and audience) to adapt to this layout of the ASO’s musical forces.
Next, pianist Lise de la Salle joined Stutzmann and the orchestra to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37.
Atlantans last heard de la Salle perform with the ASO in early May 2019, when she was the soloist for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto, a work of boundless energy and lucid, expressive serenity, led by guest conductor Lionel Bringuier — a seemingly near-perfect match of talents.
On Thursday night, her performance made Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto the highlight of the evening.
For her encore, de la Salle performed Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F minor “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ” (BWV 639) from the Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”). Busoni marks the score “Mit andacht” (“With devotion”) with instructions for each of the voices transcribed to the solo piano, and de la Salle gave it that kind of quiet, legato expressiveness called for by the transcriber. The result was one of depth without showiness.
After intermission came two works by French composer Maurcie Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin and Boléro.
Le Tombeau de Couperin (“The Grave of Couperin”) is a suite originally composed for solo piano that Ravel wrote between 1914 and 1917. The title is assumed to reference François Couperin “le Grand” (1668–1733) among the members of the Couperin musical dynasty, although Ravel said his intent was more to pay general homage to the Baroque French keyboard suite and its various dances. That version is in six movements, but when Ravel transcribed it for orchestra in 1919, he omitted two and kept four: “Prélude,” “Forlane,” “Menuet,” and “Rigaudon.”
Boléro (1928) would seem a natural work choice to follow Le Tombeau de Couperin on a program. The bolero is a Spanish dance that evolved from the seguidilla in the late 18th century but had already become obsolete as a popular style by the mid-19th century. It survived in academic dance traditions as escuela bolera, which influenced the style of modern flamenco dancing known as the seguidillas boleras. Although the escuela bolera is nearly extinct today, its legacy lives on through works like Ravel’s.
Ravel’s comment to Swiss composer Arthur Honegger about Boléro is so famous that even the ASO program book mentions it: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.” Well, there are only two melodic ideas in the piece, each heard twice between alternations. Each time revisited, they pass to a new instrument or group. This original two-part theme is played over a relentless two-bar rhythmic pattern that begins in a pair of snare drums (tambour) and continues throughout unabated. This, Boléro is a steady 15-minute crescendo of volume and coloration of minimal material. Its success depends upon the gradually growing power leading to the fortissimo ending, and the conductor’s ability to keep the underlying rhythm and pace of the gradual crescendo steady and controlled.
But enough of just the descriptions of these works. We’re not as interested in the details of the ingredients, nor how the meal is cooked. We ultimately want to know what it tastes like.
As mentioned before, Lise de la Salle’s presence and contribution was the highlight of the show. It was a delight to hear her, especially in places like the first movement’s cadenza, and other passages where her playing was most exposed.
But the program overall really didn’t feel like a “grand finale” for finishing a season, though it was an acceptable performance that would have played well somewhere in the middle of it. What was missing from the overall concert experience was any personal feeling of “Wow!” in response to the music, which I hoped would come from the season-closer.
Perhaps this reflects my more significant ambivalence about Nathalie Stutzmann’s podium appearances during her first season of tenure as the ASO’s music director. They were not a full docket and a very mixed bag in terms of my responses to them as an audience member. Every conductor has their strengths and weaknesses. All of them, without exception. That’s natural. Stutzmann has her adherents and detractors, and the impression is that taking sides is not always for musical reasons. Private conversations reveal everything from loyal devotees to those who cynically believe Stutzmann will (or should) be gone within five years or less — all comment sources to remain anonymous.
As for myself, I have been waiting for all season to have a “Wow!” experience when she leads the orchestra. So far, that hasn’t happened. Neither during this premier season or her conducting appearances that preceded it. And yet I have had that “Wow!” experience with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra many times over the decades with previous music directors and guest conductors on the podium, with a very few of them ascending to the level of almost epiphanal.
With Stutzmann, there have been some good, promising moments and others that ranged from disappointing to outright disaster.
For example, I had sincerely anticipated the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (March 30) to be one of those “Wow!” experiences. It turned out (to my own horror) to be quite the opposite, the season’s biggest disaster. (I say that as a former chorister who had once been a member of the ASO Chorus and is closely familiar with the St. Matthew Passion from the inside out.) I was also not impressed by her take on Brahms’ Third Symphony (October 14, 2022) nor the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (October 6, 2022).
On the other hand, Stutzmann’s April 20 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 was as surprisingly close to that desired “Wow!” as she has come all season, paired with a well-paced performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute to open the concert. (We are fully cognizant of the laudatory reports of her Magic Flute performances at the Met, as well as the controversy spawned from her concurrent comments in a New York Times interview. But that was in New York. We review what we experience ourselves, live or on media, not parrot the opinions of other publications or groupthink trends.)
But Thursday’s concert did not move me in that manner. As the season closer, it deserved to be a “grand finale,” something which the programming itself did not seem geared to inspire, despite the “as loud a possible” ending, as Ravel instructed it should be. As much as it is a pop-classical favorite, and with the lighter Tombeau ahead of it, that may not have been the piece with which to end the season.
So I am still waiting for that genuinely compelling moment from a Stutzmann concert with the ASO. Like Atlanta’s public transit, that bus hasn’t arrived yet, and sometimes it doesn’t show up at all. Hopefully, it will do so early in the coming season, as Stutzmann enters her sophomore year with the orchestra and takes on a more significant number of concerts in the season, with perhaps fewer distractions elsewhere. But we’ll have to wait until this fall at the earliest to find out. ■
The ASO will repeat this program on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at Symphony Hall.
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Nathalie Stutzmann: nathaliestutzmann.com
- Lise de la Salle: lisedelasalle.com