On Thursday evening in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Ravel, Barber and Sibelius, led by Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and featuring ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron as violin soloist. The concert will be performed again Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, the ASO community lost one of its beloved members to cancer this week. Ralph Jones joined the orchestra in 1970 and was its principal contrabass from 1977 until his retirement at the end of the past season. ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein made an announcement about Jones’ death at the beginning of the concert and delivered a statement from ASO Music Director Robert Spano, who was unable to be present. That was followed by a musical tribute from the orchestra, the famous “Aria” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, which had last been performed two weeks ago in the season’s opening concert.
Instead of a conductor on the podium, Coucheron led the full complement of strings from his violin. The rest of the orchestra had assembled onstage to silently take part in honoring their former colleague. The musicians wore two-colored ribbons in memoriam, the burgundy and ivory representing the kinds of cancer Jones had. His empty chair, with the music on the stand, was present in the principal bassist’s spot. In the power of the moment, the performance was exceptionally moving. At its end, the lights gently faded to black.
The concert proper began when Mälkki come onstage to conduct Ravel’s suite “Ma mère l’oy” (“Mother Goose”). The 44-year-old Mälkki led it, and indeed the entire concert, without a baton. The fanciful, story-based suite was a delight, performed with translucency but with appropriate power where needed.
Barber’s Violin Concerto of 1939 has an important place in American repertoire for violin and orchestra, but the work is relatively new to both Coucheron and Mälkki. This was her first time conducting it, having learned it at the request of the ASO specifically for this concert. Coucheron had performed it only once before and recently: this past July at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine. Also, these ASO performances won’t be the last time Coucheron plays the piece this year, as he is scheduled to perform it again with the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra on November 19.
It is a wonderful concerto, well suited to Coucheron with its predominantly lyrical, vocal characteristics in the first two movements followed by a speedy “perpetual motion” finale. But while the work poses no real intrinsic challenges in terms of balance between soloist and orchestra, there were times when Coucheron was overwhelmed by the ensemble, particularly (and surprisingly) in the first movement, whereas one would expect only a couple of orchestral buildups found in the final movement to naturally take over.
Coucheron played an encore, the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in G minor, for unaccompanied violin. He introduced it by saying, “This is for Ralph.” As with the “Aria” tribute, it was beautifully and lovingly performed.
The concert concluded with Sibelius’ remarkable Symphony No. 2, organically grown out of a three-note figure that permeates the work, start to finish. For Mälkki, the music of Sibelius is a matter of native tongue. She has a wonderful way with it that captures both its inner rhythms and a sense of overarching line, like “flying over the treetops” — if I may borrow a simile from Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s vice president for artistic planning.
This was an excellent, if somewhat safe, introduction of Mälkki to the Atlanta audience. Safe, in that while she has a command of a broad range of repertoire, her strongest reputation is in more adventurous realms of contemporary music, especially through her role as music director of Ensemble InterContemporain, the legendary flexible chamber orchestra in Paris that was founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez.
No complaints, though, about Ravel, Barber and Sibelius being the offering for her Atlanta debut, because that proved a refreshing program of some familiar names without resorting to warhorses, and established for the audience a solid first encounter with Mälkki conducting. But the next time she visits Atlanta, it would be great for her to bring some sizzlingly adventurous music in her pocket, whether to conduct the ASO again or to engage with one of Atlanta’s several “new edge” ensembles that specialize in contemporary music. That would be truly exciting.