By Lawrence Budmen

Over the past decade, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has made an impressive transition from regional orchestra to major symphonic ensemble. At a concert on April 6, 2003 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, the orchestra and its newly appointed conductor Robert Spano proved to be highly impressive. Former music director Yoel Levi built this orchestra into a smaller scale version of the great Cleveland Orchestra. The ensemble's playing bears a strong resemblance to the "Cleveland sound." The strings produce a large, warm, rounded tone. The winds play with sweetness and delicacy. The brass and percussion are brilliant without being raucous. This is an ideal ensemble for a talented young conductor and Spano knows how to play to its strengths. From the first notes of Jennifer Higdon's "Sky Line," it was clear that he is the authentic article - a maestro of authority and insight. He obtains an incisive, dynamic response from the entire orchestra. Spano seems to feel the music's pulse with his entire body. Most importantly he cuts to the heart of every score - shining light on the composers' inner thoughts and bringing the music to life. "Skyline," is a lively, inventive concert opener by Ms. Higdon, the orchestra's composer in residence .This music has strong rhythmic propulsion, witty orchestral effects, and a refreshing sense of vigor and optimism. Spano gave this masterful vignette a beautifully detailed reading. 

Brahms's "Symphony No.1 in C Minor," Opus 68 received a romantic, emotional performance. The Allegro had propulsive, surging momentum led by the brilliant string section. The Andante sostenuto was filled with warmth and yearning. In the monumental finale, the opening Adagio was eloquently shaped with plenty of breadth and spaciousness and beautifully sculpted phrasing. The trombone section played the chorale with a mellow, burnished glow. The Allegro ma non troppo was highly charged and intense. Principal flute Christina Smith made her solo a standout with a large, golden tone. Spano made the entire score sing in an unforced, flowing manner - great Brahms conducting.

In Rachmaninoff's popular "Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor," Opus 18, Spano and the orchestra provided big boned, lushly romantic sound that always perfectly meshed with soloist Andre Watts's conception of the score. While he no longer offers the chiseled perfection that was once his hallmark, Watts provided a dazzling keyboard display. He spun a gorgeous array of tonal colors in a dreamy and languid reading of the Adagio sostenuto. The finale was all grand, sweeping romantic gestures. The very real musical partnership and warmth between Watts and Spano were palpable.

As an encore Spano offered more Brahms. The "Hungarian Dance No.1" was played with full, rich symphonic sound and the abandon of a gypsy band. The concert reiterated that the Atlanta Symphony is now one of America's best orchestras. Spano is well on the way to becoming a truly great conductor!

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