On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Sir William Walton in Symphony Hall, led by ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles. A trio of hometown ASO musicians were the featured soloists: Concertmaster David Coucheron, principal cellist Christopher Rex and Music Director Robert Spano in one of his rare appearances as pianist. The concert will be performed again tonight and on Saturday evening.
The concert opened with the Overture from Beethoven’s incidental music to “Egmont,” a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Most visually notable was a change in the typical deployment of musicians onstage. The cello and viola sections had swapped places, with violas at the front of the stage directly across from the first violins. The cellos, then, faced more outward though farther back onstage. Back in row “P” of the audience, under the overhang of the loge level, there was a positive audible difference in the presence of the orchestra’s lower strings.
Runnicles’ take on Beethoven’s overture was bold and rich, with the aroma and flavor of a thick, juicy steak just off the grill. It was a rendering that offered up optimistic expectations for the rest of the evening.
But, alas, Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” (Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra) is a problematic work. It is as problematic for critics as it is for performers. While larger consensus has long been that it is the least among all the composer’s concertos, there are those who actively defend it as grossly underrated. Regardless, its place in the concerto repertoire is secured by the simple fact that for a hundred years it was “the” triple concerto — no competition.
The work presents challenges of balance among soloists, and them with the orchestra. That the concerto was preceded by the richly smooth “Egmont” highlighted its issues. Despite the attractive, much anticipated combination of Spano, Coucheron and Rex with Runnicles at the helm, this performance never really congealed and lacked electricity. In part that is the fault of the piece itself. And, frankly speaking, for the most part the solo parts are just not that compelling.
Runnicles did not come out for the second phase of ovation, allowing the soloists to have a bow alone. But Spano, perhaps sensing the polite but waning dynamic of the audience, wisely asked the orchestra to stand. The applause died once the soloists left the stage.
There are other triple concertos for violin, cello, piano and orchestra, but not many, and aside from Beethoven’s, none of note from the 19th century. But there are a handful that are worth exploring, among them those of Alfredo Casella and Bohuslav Martinů, both written in 1933; one by Alexander Tcherepnin from the same era but revised in 1967; one by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich from 1995; and a 10-minute Serenade for piano trio and orchestra written in 2002 by pianist-composer Lera Auerbach.
Nevertheless, the challenge remains for a living composer to write a triple concerto that can be as easily programmed as Beethoven’s, which continues to trump due to sheer familiarity — busy musicians who already know it can put it together with relative speed. What would be highly desirable is a triple concerto written specifically for these musicians, one that plays to their respective strengths. It’s time for the ASO to commission one.
Walton’s Symphony No. 1 made up the second half of the program. Written in 1935, Walton’s high-energy symphony has an overall texture as thick as Christmas pudding. The first three movements are dark in character, the second being marked by the composer con malizia (with malice).
The most obvious influence in this regard is that Walton’s tempestuous relationship with the widowed Baroness Imma von Doernberg was in a “crash and burn” nosedive. He got a case of composer’s block and could not complete a fourth movement — that is, until he began an affair with Viscountess Alice Wimborne. This finale, with its very self-conscious use of fugue, is almost as dense as the first three movements but brighter in tone.
The entire work afforded much opportunity for the brass section to play out with enthusiasm. A special nod was given by Runnicles to the brass and to the principal woodwinds, as the symphony received a warm ovation from the audience, though not one that pegged any applause meters.