On Thursday night, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Benedikt Brydern, Dmitri Shostakovich and Peter Tchaikovsky, led by guest conductor Michael Morgan and featuring solo pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. Two more concerts in Symphony Hall remain, tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Before the orchestral program, the ASO presented another of its chamber music pre-concert recitals at 6:45 p.m., free to ticket holders to the full concert. Two works were presented.
First was the postminimalist “Red,” written in 2008 for two marimbas by Chicago-based Marc Mellits and performed by ASO percussionists Thomas Sherwood and Charles Settle. Mellits has been getting a lot of exposure in Atlanta’s new-music community in recent years, and to hear him in this context was welcomed. Then a quintet of ASO wind players — Christina Smith on flute, Elizabeth Tiscione on oboe, Laura Ardan on clarinet, Susan Welty on horn and Carl Nitchie on bassoon — performed György Ligeti’s neoclassical “Six Bagatelles,” written in 1959. This was the Ligeti piece that the same quintet intended to play at Eddie’s Attic in January before Welty became ill at the last minute, squelching its presence on that program.
The 8 p.m. orchestral program kicked off with Brydern’s “Double Identity.” The German-born Brydern, 47, is a film composer and classically trained jazz violinist who lives in Los Angeles. Morgan commissioned the piece as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and conducted its premiere in April 2010. That performance received mixed reviews from two Bay Area critics; one loved the piece while the other panned it. My reaction is somewhere in the middle.
“Double Identity” was written deliberately as a “crossover” piece to bring the jazz idiom into the symphonic concert hall, something that arises as a kind of crusade every so often, though it’s a rather dated battle and few think that it’s much of an issue any more — like fighting against fluoride in municipal drinking water. Those for whom it makes a difference seek out the real thing from natural springs. But most of us in this century have long accepted jazz influences in modern symphonic music as a given.
The weaknesses of “Double Identity” come from its very stylistic self-consciousness, often rife with clichéd elements of style. Its strengths come from the composer’s genuine craft in putting these together into a cohesive and forward-moving form as a concert work — from the upbeat first movement, through a bluesy slow movement that segues into the vivacious finale, based on a boppy rhythmic variation of the slow movement’s theme, and a long, often contrapuntal buildup to the work’s somewhat over-the-top climax. What seemed to be missing is that most elusive of elements: a composer’s “signature.” For Brydern, that could well come over time.
Going from that work’s optimism to its polar opposite, the orchestra then performed the enigmatic Symphony No. 6 of Shostakovich, written in 1939, a difficult year for the world and for the composer as well. It opens in an atypical manner for a symphony, with a brooding, emotionally troubled “Largo” that is longer than the rest of the symphony combined. The final two movements, a scherzo marked “Allegro” and “Presto” finale, are often described as being “lighter” than the first movement. True, relatively speaking, but Morgan’s approach with the orchestra kept them in a troubled, ironic vein all the way through the rather heavy jackbooted march that concludes the work.
Speaking of clichés, the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky, which made up the second half of the program, is typically an easy toss into the end zone. You’d really have to screw it up to make the audience unhappy, and the majority of Thursday’s audience seemed pleased with the performance by pianist Sudbin. As a minority response, my opinion differed.
First, Morgan’s handling of the orchestra, especially in the famous opening bars, felt ham-handed, sheer volume without nobility. This perhaps exacerbated Sudbin’s focus on hot-blooded technique alone. What should have been more lyrical passages felt brittle; flourishes of notes thus did not fully evolve into actual musical gestures. Sudbin’s 2007 recording on the BIS label comes across as more appealing than the live performance of Thursday night.
Again, the audience was fairly quick to approve, but I had difficulty keeping my mind from wandering during the Tchaikovsky and only at the end realized that I had developed a minor headache that was not present at intermission. In retrospect, while the symphonic program was the main course of the evening, I personally found the appetizer course of chamber music by Mellits and Ligeti far more engaging and interesting.