ATLANTA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
ROBERT SPANO/ EMANUEL AX
THEOFANIDIS/ MOZART/ RACHMANINOV (2-26-07)
By Lawrence Budmen
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is one of the great success stories of the American orchestral world. This thriving ensemble was molded and finely honed in the aural image of the great Cleveland Orchestra – the musical gold standard. Former music directors Robert Shaw and Yoel Levi were both assistant conductors in Cleveland. Atlanta’s current music chief Robert Spano is a former member of Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory and a frequent guest conductor in Cleveland. When Spano and his Atlanta ensemble appeared at Miami’s Carnival Center on February 26 (presented at the Knight Concert Hall by the Concert Association of Florida), the orchestra’s virtuosity, instrumental colors, and versatility were of the world class variety.
Spano is a superb orchestral technician with an impressive command of a wide ranging orchestral repertoire. He has long been acknowledged as a contemporary music specialist. (Along with the remarkable Marin Alsop, Spano is a leading candidate for the next generation of American podium masters.) One of his major projects has been the Atlanta School of Composers – bonding the orchestra with some of the most gifted younger composers of our time.
Spano has championed the music of Christopher Theofanidis (1967- ), both in Atlanta and in his international guest engagements. Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body (2000) was an appealing opener. The composer’s svelte string writing and colorful, large scale instrumentation suggest an emerging Samuel Barber for the 21st century. Spano’s superb ensemble played this engaging score with voluptuous tonal sheen and high wire intensity of utterance.
In a season notable for less than stellar performances of Mozart piano concertos, Emanuel Ax’s traversal of the Salzburg master’s Concerto No.22 in E-flat Major, K.482 was the authentic article. Ax is a great musician who has long had a special affinity for Mozart’s glorious keyboard writing. His performance was a veritable encyclopedia of what masterful Mozart playing is all about – accurate, incisive, powerful, and expressive. From the bold chords that mark the soloist’s entrance in the initial Allegro through the serenely spun Andante, this was prime Ax. In the Rondo Finale, the pianist’s deft finger work made the music dance, imbuing it with verve and brio. For sheer joy, Ax’s lithe performance was in the top league of Mozart players. Spano balanced orchestral details with lightness and elegance. The collaboration between pianist and conductor had the refined interplay of chamber music.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances was the composer’s final orchestral score, written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Atlanta Symphony’s dynamic performance fulfilled the music’s virtuoso demands par excellence. From the first bars of the provocative Non allegro opening movement, Spano’s exciting performance crackled with romantic fervor and fire. In the alluring secondary theme, the ensemble’s sensuous strings bedazzled the ear. Cecylia Arzewski’s violin solo sang with sentimental luster in the melancholy waltz of the second movement. Spano’s ability to introduce the slightest hesitation into a sudden twist of musical line was supple and intoxicating. In the exciting finale, the orchestra’s silver tinged winds and exciting brass and percussion produced climaxes of feverish excitement. Spano always kept the musical line transparent. Instrumental timbres that are often lost in an overdrive of sound had clarity and distinctive presence.
As an encore Spano led a lively, subtle performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1. The orchestra’s richly sonorous, lush strings had a field day in this feast of Hungarian paprika.