Pianist Michelle Cann performing Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, November 16, 2023. (credit: Rand LInes)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra spotlights Russian composers, celebrates Black women musicians in stirring concert

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
November 16, 18 & 19, 2023
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
David Danzmayr, conductor; Michelle Cann, piano.
Julia PERRY: Short Piece for Large Orchestra
Sergei RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei PROKOFIEAV: Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Mark Gresham | 18 NOV 2023

Although the two major works in Thursday night’s program by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were composed by prominent Russian men, the evening was as much a celebration of music-making by Black women.

Julia Perry (source: Wikimedia)

Julia Perry. (source: Wikimedia)

Guest conductor David Danzmayr, an Austrian conductor who is the music director of the Oregon Symphony, kicked off the concert leading the ASO in Short Piece for Large Orchestra by African-American composer Julia Perry (1924 – 1979).

Written in 1952, Perry revised Short Piece twice, first in 1955 and again in 1965. The New York Philharmonic performed and recorded the final version in Lincoln Center that same year.

Short Piece is a rhythmic playground, often dissonant but embracing an energetic syncopated vibe, although it also has long passages of lyricism. The impression it leaves is one of a tension-embued film score for a Hitchcock thriller, like a cross between Bernard Herrmann and her principal teacher, Luigi Dallapiccola. It was a solid and attention-engaging opener.

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Pianist Michelle Cann was the featured soloist for the evening, performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) with Danzmayr and the ASO.

At first, Ms. Cann took the stage, then suddenly left. Two stagehands appeared and slightly adjusted the position of the piano; she then returned to settle in on the piano bench, ready to play. The audience enjoyed this brief episode, applauding the stagehands and Cann, respectively, with a bit of cheering and lighthearted laughter because of how little the piano needed to be moved.

It reminded me of the apocryphal story of a famous pianist (perhaps Rubenstein, or another similar repute) who, before he began to play his concert, was visibly not happy with the height of the piano bench provided. He asked for a phone book, which was brought out and placed on the bench. Still clearly unhappy with the height, he stood up, opened the phone book, tore out a single page, then sat back down and happily began to play.

Michelle Cann performs Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

Michelle Cann performs Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (credit: Rand Lines)

The proverbial ice broken, the performance commenced in earnest: a crescendo of massive chords in the solo piano alone, like the tolling of large bells, essentially an extended plagal cadence over eight bars, from pianissimo to fortissimo, then came arpeggiated chords in the piano as it became accompaniment for the sweeping, passionate melody taken up in the orchestra. Thus, the epic concerto began. From there, a tempest of interconnected musical motifs swirled through the piano and orchestra, leading to the movement’s tumultuous conclusion.

The second movement epitomized sentimentality, reaching an emotional pinnacle. The finale is formidable and substantial, from the notoriously challenging opening pages, which were expertly executed, to the resounding climax in its final moments.

Cann’s performance was impressive and emotionally moving; Danzmayr and the ASO were ideal partners.

Cann’s encore was the most intriguing item in the concert. She recreated a take on Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C♯ minor as recorded by jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott (1920 – 1981) on her 1941 album Swinging The Classics (Decca 212), originally released as “side C” on a three-disc set of 10-inch shellac 78 RPM records — essentially a trio of “singles” issued as a six-track album, as was the practice before LPs, in the final years before vinyl became the standard medium for audio discs of all types. *

Hazel Scott, detail from cover for her 1957 album , ‘Round Midnight  (Decca, DL 8474)

Hazel Scott, detail from cover for her 1957 album , ‘Round Midnight (Decca, DL 8474)

These short, monophonic recordings contained Scott’s boogie-woogie and swing renderings of well-known classical works. In addition to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, the set featured Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla, Two-Part Invention in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, Country Gardens by Percy Grainger, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C♯ minor by Franz Liszt, and Frederic Chopin’s Valse in D♭ major, Op. 64, No. 1 (“Minute Waltz”).

Scott’s Swinging The Classics went through multiple 78 rpm reprints before being consolidated on a single monophonic vinyl LP.

David Danzmayr leads the ASO in Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 7," November 16, 2023. (credit: Rand Lines)

David Danzmayr leads the ASO in Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 7,” November 16, 2023. (credit: Rand Lines)

The concert concluded with another Russian work: Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7, composed in 1952, just one year before the composer’s death.

This elusively enigmatic score might initially seem an unlikely choice to conclude this program, representing as it does the final emotional outpouring of an ailing and shattered man. But that assessment would have been entirely wrong.

The breadth of sound Danzmayr and the ASO gave its opening bars was surprising and engaging, grabbing this listener’s attention. It quickly became an absorbing half-hour journey of discovery, convincingly performed, wrapping what was a delightfully strong, solid evening of programming and performance by the assembled forces.

*About 10-inch 78 rpm shellac records:
The maximum duration of an audio recording on a 78 rpm 10-inch shellac record depends on several factors, including the groove width and the recording stylus used. Generally, a 10-inch 78 rpm record at the standard groove width could hold up to 5 minutes of audio per side. However, most had durations closer to the 3 to 4-minute range to maintain acceptable audio quality. While the use of vinyl for recordings began during the Second World War, record companies continued making shellac records until the end of the 78 rpm era in 1948. After the war, vinyl became more practical with the development of lightweight crystal pickups with precision-ground styluses.


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.