Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the main course in Thursday night’s subscription performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with music by Joaquín Rodrigo sandwiched in between and a couple of fine encores thrown in for dessert. The featured soloist was classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić; the guest conductor was Xian Zhang. (The name was printed in that “Western” order in the program, her family name being Zhang; other Chinese names in this review are in Chinese order, with surname first.)
Born in Dandong, China, in 1973, Zhang launched her career at age 20, conducting Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Fiharo” at the Central Opera House in Beijing before coming to the United States in 1998. A former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, she is now music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppi Verdi, the first woman to hold such a position in Italy, and artistic director of the NJO/Dutch Orchestra and Ensemble Academy.
The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular overture-fantasy “Romeo and Juliet.” Both it and his Symphony No. 2 (nicknamed the “Little Russian”), which made up the second half of the concert, are audience pleasers. Both were given well-received, solidly mainline performances, more of an orchestra’s shared common vision than a perhaps riskier, personal one from Zhang. There were, however, no complaints in that regard from critic or audience. Both prinicpal horn Brice Andrus and bassoonist Carl Nitchie had prominent solos and were acknowledged by Zhang in the ovations.
In between, the Montenegrin-born Karadaglić came on to play the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Rodrigo. The piece is to guitar what Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is to cello; each is at the core of the instrument’s repertoire with orchestra. But just as young cellists, especially touring prodigies, are too often asked to play the Dvořák, the Rodrigo too often seems to be the only guitar concerto requested by an orchestra.
Nevertheless, Karadaglić is a very hot item among his fans. On Wednesday, his Facebook page was abuzz about his arrival. The Deutsche Grammophon recording artist, whose debut CD was released in 2011 and has sold more than 150,000 copies, had been recording and editing in Berlin the previous week. “Now in Atlanta Georgia! Sunny and nice,” he posted to his page. “Rehearsal done, ready to rock tomorrow night! Amazing ASO. Need to practice those scales.”
Despite amplification and the restraint of the orchestra, especially the strings, there were issues of balance. Balancing classical guitar against an orchestra is a Herculean task. In those sections when Karadaglić played alone, one could hear reasonably well the details such as articulation and occasional expressive vibrato on single notes. There seemed not to be visual contact between conductor and soloist, not that Karadaglić didn’t try. But his performance was nevertheless one of ease and elegant disposition.
The guitarist returned to the stage for a solo encore, “Batucada” by Uruguayan-Brazilian classical guitarist and composer Isaías Sávio. Karadaglić’s performance of the Sávio was more extroverted than the Rodrigo, prompting a group of fans seated toward the back of the hall to hoot and holler in enthusiastic approval during the ovation. It would do Karadaglić well to return to Atlanta to perform a solo recital in a more intimate space.
Zhang is a champion of Chinese composers, and in celebration of the Lunar New Year, the orchestra played a Chinese encore, “Spring Festival Overture” by Li Huànzhī. Although Li, who lived from 1919 to 2000, is unfamiliar to most American audiences, he is highly esteemed in China. Every schoolchild knows his name, as the prominent tune of “Spring Festival Overture” appears in school music textbooks and is often performed across the People’s Republic on festive occasions.
Evident in the performance was Li’s style, which one might call the “Shanghai school” of composing — a Westernized approach at its core overlaid with Chinese features — which developed in the 1920s during the First Republic. In that regard, Li shares stylistic attributes with his teacher, Xiǎn Xīnghăi, best known for his “Yellow River Cantata,” which later developed into the popular “Yellow River Concerto” for piano and orchestra.
“Spring Festival Overture” works well as an encore and could do equally well in the context of a “light classical” concert, programmed perhaps in the same kind of spot as one would a Rossini overture. It was certainly a bright and entertaining contrast to the rest of the concert and was the piece with which conductor Zhang was visibly most at home.
The concert will be performed again tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in Symphony Hall.