Mark Gresham | 28 OCT 2023
One or two times in a given season, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presents a classical “special” concert, a one-night-only event typically featuring a super-star performer guaranteed to sell out—big names like violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma or, in the case of this past Wednesday night at Symphony Hall, violinist Joshua Bell.
Guest conductor Peter Oundjian, an excellent choice for this occasion, led the orchestra with Bell as soloist in what—quite unsurprisingly—was a splendid performance all around.
But let’s take things out of program order, jumping to the entry of the featured star of the evening, Joshua Bell, as soloist in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Bell’s performance was nearly impeccable, surpassing even Itzhak Perlman’s performance with the ASO in a May 2022 “special” with conductor Nicola Luisotti, according to one listener at intermission,. And I concur.
But quite curiously, this Concerto seems to get played all-too-frequently on the ASO stage: Before Perlman, in January 2021 violinist Randall Goosby played it with the ASO led by conductor Gemma New, filmed in a mid-pandemic live-streamed concert. Step back one more year to March 2020, with Yoel Levi conducting the ASO, when Pinchas Zukerman played it, substituting for Itzhak Perlman, who cancelled due to travel concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus. (The same day as the concert, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.)
So why the Bruch Concerto yet again? That question looms larger in light of the music that followed intermission, when Bell returned to the stage to solo again to play three “selections” from his commissioning project, The Elements.
The brilliant star violinist presented excerpts from The Elements in this concert with the ASO and Oundjian. He commissioned the composition from five leading well-known American composers in 2019-23: Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Edgar Meyer, Jessie Montgomery, and Kevin Puts. The result was a set of short pieces, each about six to eight minutes in length, devoted to the five Aristotelian classical elements: “earth,” “water,” “fire,” “air,” and “ether” (or in this musical realization, “space”). Each composer wrote and dedicated an individual movement to an element, with a return of “Earth” in a reprise and finale.
What we got on Wednesday night was only three of the movements: “Earth,” “Water,” and “Fire.”
It began with “Earth” by Kevin Putz, played with simultaneous longing and confidence radiating from Bell’s 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius violin.
“Water” by Edgar Meyer seemed to most closely evoke titular associations, with brisk, fluid runs in the solo violin over the orchestra’s sonic rapids and waterfalls.
“Fire” by Jake Heggie initially burst forth in sparks, then a smoldering heat developed into a lively blazing fire. It was an exciting piece from beginning to end, and Bell was visibly having a good time.
What was exceptionally noticeable about this programming of these “selections,” however, especially given the ASO’s conspicuous efforts at DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), the two “elements” left out were those where the music was composed by women: “Air” by Jennifer Higdon, who spent her childhood years growing up in Atlanta, and “Space” by Jesse Montgomery (which reputedly poses the violin soloist as the Sun and groups in the orchestra as planets orbiting around it).
Which brings the previous question again to mind: Why program the Bruch Violin Concerto and just the three “selections” when we could have heard the entire of The Elements instead, as did the audiences in Hamburg, Germany, in the September 1 world premiere with the NDR Elbphilharmonie and conductor Alan Gilbert, and New Yorkers at the end of September with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Jaap van Zweden at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall?
Did those making the programming decisions seriously think Atlantans would not show up if Bell played a complete new work he commissioned? Or is it that Bruch has somehow become an “obligation” for any “special concert” featuring a violinist? The former may have been partly true back in the 20th century; the latter is an absolutely wrong-headed way to think about programming (which is not the same issue as Bell’s superb performance of the Bruch).
Bell’s appearance within the program was bookended by more extremely familiar repertoire, both so familiar that both were most recently played in the ASO’s outdoor “Parks” concert at Piedmont Park’s Oak Hill on September 30: Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) from Má vlast, which opened Wedneday’s special, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappriccio espagnol, Op. 31, which closed the concert. Oundjian brpught out the best in the orchestra in both of these popular works.
Oundjian is a well-respected conductor who repeatedly appears as a guest with the ASO, most recently leading the orchestra in its 2022/23 season-opening concert in September 2022. (Although it was Nathalie Stutzmann’s debut season as music director, she did not conduct the opening concert.) Other recent appearances on the ASO podium include May 2021 and March 2019. The thought does come to mind: Were circumstances not as they currently are at the ASO, Oundjian would make a really outstanding music director. Ah, but a little late. ■