In the midst of tornado warnings and watches throughout the city on Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Paul Dukas, Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók at Symphony Hall, led by guest conductor Lionel Bringuier and featuring as guest soloist cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The orchestra will perform the concert again tonight and Saturday.
Once the musicians gathered onstage and the house lights dimmed, the concert began with a commercial for the ASO’s 2013-14 season, displayed on the two roll-down screens that the hall keeps in place for projections. The impressively well-produced two-minute video will be shown this week and next as ASO concerts begin; it can also be seen on the orchestra’s season announcement Web page and various social media sites. While any future plans for the video are as yet undisclosed, it would be awesome, perhaps even trend-setting, for it to be shown on television.
It’s not a bad idea to mentally let go of both marketing and Mickey Mouse when it comes to “L’apprenti sorcier” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) by French composer Paul Dukas, the first music on the program. This symphonic poem, inspired by Goethe’s poem of the same name, was already quite popular in the concert hall before it was spread through popular culture in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film “Fantasia.”
The piece is a worthy curtain-raiser, although what sticks in the popular mind, of course, is the iconic scherzo tune introduced in full by ASO principal bassoonist Carl Nitchie about two and a half minutes into the piece. But another memorable element is the formidable glockenspiel, often played on a special keyed instrument that facilitates performance. ASO principal percussionist Thomas Sherwood, however, adeptly nailed it on a standard glockenspiel, without a net. Bringuier led the orchestra in an engaging reading without being tempted to go over the top with it.
Cello soloist Weilerstein, who will turn 31 on Sunday, made her ASO debut in this concert, performing the formidable Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. The composer wrote it in 1959 for legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered it in October of that year with conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, then recorded it in November with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Since then it has been recorded dozens of times, making it plausibly the most popular cello concerto of the 20th century. Yo-Yo Ma also recorded it with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. But it’s notable that the only other cellist to record it with the Philadelphia is Weilerstein — in her case with Christoph Eschenbach at the band’s helm — for the Decca label. It is well worth comparing Weilerstein’s recording with that of Rostropovich, as well as this performance.
Weilerstein showed that she has the chops from the bold opening four-note motif onward. She took the first movement just a hair faster than Slava, and in this performance she had slight issues with the first two forays into the instrument’s upper regions, but the rest of the performance made up for it, in particular a nearly mind-blowing rendition of the solo cadenza, which comprises the entire third movement of the work. She takes more time than Rostropovich, well over a minute more, but draws immense range of expression from it. Likewise with the mostly elegiac second movement and the robust but relatively brief fourth movement. Weilerstein’s overall tone is not the largest, but her expression and especially her exceptionally articulate bowing compensate to render an exciting performance.
Also noteworthy was the significant part written for the sole French horn in the piece, played superbly by ASO associate principal horn Susan Welty.
If you have to pick a piece with enough electricity to follow the Shostakovich, Bartók’s five-movement Concerto for Orchestra is one that fills the bill. It was written in the last years of the composer’s life, after he had moved to the United States and was mostly ill. It was premiered in December 1944 by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to great success. A national radio broadcast by the NBC Orchestra a few years later created a buzz among musicians of the fledgling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but it would be another two decades, 1967, before the ASO would perform it. The most recent ASO performance was led by Robert Spano in 2008.
Bringuier and the orchestra gave it a lively, engaging rendering. After these performances, Bringuier is headed to the West Coast to lead a concert of all-French music by Messiaen, Saint Saens and Ravel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and after that he’ll conduct the New York Philharmonic in mid-June, including the Dukas “L’apprenti sorcier” that opened this concert.