Thursday was a rainy night in Georgia, but a near-capacity audience showed up at Symphony Hall to hear Robert Spano conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a performance of music by Michael Gandolfi, Sergei Prokofiev and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. There were two featured soloists on the docket: the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen and the ASO’s own principal clarinetist, Laura Ardan.
Up first was the world premiere of Gandolfi’s concerto for clarinet and strings, “The Nature of Light,” with Ardan as soloist. The 22-minute piece is a tour de force for clarinet, requiring lyricism, technical virtuosity and sheer stamina. The lithe, elegant Ardan was on fire and brought all those attributes to the work. While her music was present on the stand, she hardly seemed chained to it, at times swaying her body and clarinet in expressive arcs as the music moved her.
Although Gandolfi’s title for the concerto came after the fact, he notes that each movement exhibits parallels to the dual characteristics of light, implied by their titles: “Waves (Anthem)” and “Particles (Shape Shifter).” Musically speaking, they respectively portray, in the broadest sense, lyricism and virtuosity.
“Waves (Anthem)” is essentially a chaconne, a kind of set of variations on a ground bass. But in this case, Gandolfi also overlays the salient attributes of sonata form — exposition, development, recapitulation in his treatment of the variations, plus a brief introduction and coda to open and close. After the introduction by the strings, the clarinet takes up the chaconne tune.
It is exposed by being presented to the audience at one speed, then at another, then both simultaneously as a mensural canon. A development section ensues as a series of variations; then the original chaconne tune returns, accompanied by cascading lines that play out the previously gathered momentum. That leads to a coda based upon the introduction, this time with the clarinet included.
“Particles (Shape Shifter)” is a kind of hybridized rondo with a rhythmic drive that gives the clarinetist a genuine workout. Gandolfi takes rhythmic shapes presented in one section of the music and resets it against a different metrical framework in another — like speaking a line of poetry a second time but with a different emphasis on the syllables — hence the movement’s submoniker, “Shape Shifter.” After much rush and flurry, an expressively varied and extensive cadenza for the clarinet is followed by the final statement of the original material, bringing the piece to a big fff close.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the last piano concerto he completed, isn’t played often and was an attractive choice to follow the Gandolfi concerto. Gandolfi was pursuing in his concerto more complex development of the materials he used in “Q.E.D.” In contrast, Prokofiev was seeking a “new simplicity” in his fifth piano concerto, which he originally didn’t intend to even call a concerto. But the work grew in complexity as he tried to avoid the formulae of “old simplicity,” ending up as five brief movements totaling 22 minutes.
It’s actually a fun piece that should be hear more. Pohjonen played it crisply and with clarity, unflappable in his execution of its details and technical aspects, confident in the execution. The concerto’s first three movements draw most attention to their rhythmic interests. Together they seem almost like a complete work, if too brief. But a slow fourth movement, marked Larghetto, the longest, enters the scene and works its way to a grand climax. The final movement, Vivo, ends the concerto.
At the conclusion of the concert’s first half, it felt as if some finishing touch had been left undone. My feeling was that a suitable brief encore by Pohjonen would have filled that need. But the concert was long enough, and Pohjonen, who got a good standing ovation, made up for the absence of encore by autographing CDs in the lobby at intermission.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is perhaps his most beloved composition, inspired by the compilation of Near Eastern folk tales commonly known as “1001 Arabian Nights.” He is a consummate orchestrator, giving most of the principal players in the piece some opportunity to be highlighted, if only for a brief moment or two. Most extensive among these are the solos given to violin, that music representing the storytelling Scheherazade herself, lovingly and expressively performed by concertmaster David Coucheron.