The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed music by Verdi, Respighi and Brahms on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, featuring guest pianist Olli Mustonen and with the podium shared by ASO Music Director Robert Spano and guest conductor Alexandra Arrieche.
Arrieche led only the first eight minutes of the concert, the overture to Verdi’s opera “La forza del destino” (“The Force of Destiny”), a longtime standard of orchestral repertoire last performed in an ASO subscription concert only two years ago. She conducted the opening “fate” motif with noticeably vigorous horizontal arm motions rather than a typical downbeat, taking her time with fermatas on the rests after each of the unison three-note statements. The performance indicates that her professional development is well worth watching.
Curiously, the program booklet did not explain the reason behind the presence of Arrieche as guest conductor for the one short work. A little research, however, revealed it to be part of her activities as a Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow this season, a fellowship founded by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to promote women as orchestral conductors. Two past recipients of the fellowship, Laura Jackson and Mei-Ann Chen, are familiar to Atlanta audiences from their stints with the ASO.
On a humorous note, there is a typo in the program notes for the overture, which refers to it as “The Force of Density.” I normally overlook such things, but there is unintentional wordplay in this instance: in classical Newtonian physics, force equals density times volume times acceleration.
After leading the overture, Arrieche took a seat in the audience to listen to Spano conduct the “Concerto in modo misolidio” by Respighi, with Mustonen as piano soloist. The “modo misolidio” in the title refers to the modern Mixolydian mode, a scale that differs from a major scale by virtue of a seventh degree that is lower by a half-step. For those unfamiliar, it’s the same scale that underlies the Kentucky mountain tune “Old Joe Clark” and the song “Sweet Home Alabama” by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, to mention just a couple of non-classical examples.
“Concerto in modo misolidio” is the second of Respighi’s two piano concertos. Long neglected but enjoying some renewed attention in recent years, it was written in the year after his well-known symphonic poem, “Pines of Rome.” This was the concerto’s first performance by the ASO. Mustonen performed with the score in front of him, but no matter: the performance was delightful, the piece itself very attractive. As in Respighi’s symphonic poems, the orchestration is colorful and often subtle.
Respighi also knows when not to use the orchestra and leaves significant passages throughout for piano alone. For example, after the orchestra’s opening “ta-da” on a unison E-flat, an a fantasia piano solo goes on for over two minutes before the orchestra sneaks back in on a low E under arpeggios in the pianist’s left hand. The piece then gradually crescendos to a fortissimo, suddenly dropping out to leave the piano accompanied by rolling E-flat on one of the kettledrums for the ensuing 15 bars before the orchestra suddenly returns fortissimo to give the pianist a first break from the action.
Later, the pianist gets even more extensive unaccompanied play before the orchestra returns quietly in sight of the movement’s end. Principal cellist Christopher Rex had a nicely expressive featured passage in duo with Mustonen in the first movement, as did the entire cello section at the beginning of the slow second movement.
Respighi does an interesting, clever thing at the end of the second movement by allowing unaccompanied piano to conclude it, then jump without pause to begin the third and final movement: a passacaglia marked Allegro energico, with an entire page of unaccompanied piano after which the orchestra enters più allegro in response. The pace eventually calms to a quiet Andante espressivo, but the orchestra has another shot at an Allegro passage before the piano joins it for a final Allegro vivo in one beat to the bar, bringing it to a broadened fortissimo conclusion in its final bars.
The concerto was the highlight of the evening, though the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms was yet to come in the concert’s second half. It was the Respighi that won the day for me. The concert will be performed again tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Before Thursday’s concert, there was also one of the ASO’s occasional presentations of chamber music with onstage seating. ASO audiences should be aware that these prefixes to some concerts exist. They are free for ticket holders to the main concert and are well worth attending.