On Friday, just two days before the official beginning of autumn, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Robert Spano, performed an outdoor concert at Chastain Park Amphitheater. In the dozen years since Spano joined the orchestra, it’s the first time he has conducted in the venerable venue. For the ASO itself, the history of Chastain performances goes back to 1973, so this year marked its 40th anniversary of concerts there. Parking and traffic can pose challenges if a show is sold out or there is another event in the park, such as a soccer game, as was the case Friday night.
Spano was obliged to take up a microphone to introduce works either before or after each was played. He kept the talk friendly but, wisely, to a bare minimum, as there was a total of 70 minutes of music on the program, with a planned half-hour intermission. Brevity was advisable as the sizable audience was still streaming in at curtain time, and the show started 10 minutes late.
The concert, billed as a kind of collection of “musical postcards” from around the world, kicked off on an American note with Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” an excellent curtain-raiser which in its faster passages didn’t quite get to the tempo of an out-and-out Voltairean romp.
The orchestra was still centering itself musically at that point, and balances in the amplification needed much adjusting. But by about 85 bars into the next piece, the “Festival at Baghdad” movement from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” things came into sharper focus for the orchestra and the more egregious amplification issues had been addressed.
The “Scheherazade” music was also where Concertmaster David Coucheron was prominently featured in the scintillating solo violin passages. The amplification treated his violin rather well. It made his tone seem huskier and somewhat reedier but did not damage the expressiveness of his playing.
The tuneful “Polovtsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” followed, and the first half of the concert concluded with another Bernstein number, the “Mambo” from “West Side Story,” which Spano described jokingly as a postcard “from the dirty streets of New York.”
The second half opened with the most “serious” of the evening’s selections, “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius, and the scoring of the piece actually stood up well in an outdoor venue. The brass especially impressed with a broad, warm and unified sound in the opening bars.
Next up was George Gershwin’s 1928 tone poem “An American in Paris,” which evokes the energetic moderne energy of the French capital in that era. Then came the East European verve of the “Hungarian Dance No. 1” by Johannes Brahms.
When Spano turned to the audience and said the concert would end with a trip to “a galaxy far, far away,” a small child in the row behind me said “Star Wars!” before the orchestra could play a note. Even though the first movie in the “Star Wars” franchise was released in 1977, the memes of George Lucas’ pop-culture space opera have by now been passed down and embedded in the psyches of a couple of generations, even unto them who may be hearing their first symphony orchestra concert and call the music’s name in the silence before the sound.
Surely an amphitheater such as Chastain is an imperfect venue for an orchestra, but its informal, relaxed atmosphere has its values. For one, a number of small children of preschool age were observed among Friday’s audience. One can hope that even if this was their first experience of hearing an orchestra, in the wide, open air, they will remember and return to symphonic music again and again as they grow older. And maybe even pass it on to the next generation.