ArtsATL > Music > ASO review: Brilliant Mozart from Jonathan Biss and a young maestro to watch

ASO review: Brilliant Mozart from Jonathan Biss and a young maestro to watch

After years of talking about it, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has finally launched a chamber music series. The debut, not well publicized, took place earlier this month. The second concert in the series opened the evening Thursday in Symphony Hall, one hour before the big symphonic event. It’s an excellent start: the musicians wore casual street clothes, the audience was invited to sit on stage and the music, by Dvorak and Mozart, helped illuminate the main program.

In a town without enough chamber music, the series can stretch the ears of the ASO audience. It offers rank-and-file members of the orchestra a chance to be heard apart from their section. And it’s a great way to build cohesion within the ASO, since players must listen to one another from a new perspective. The format loosens the unnecessary formality of the concert hall. Not least, the chamber repertoire is unfathomably deep and in many cases finds composers at their most probing and emotional. I arrived in time for Mozart’s F Major Oboe Quartet, fragrant music, with Elizabeth Koch in the starring role.

Some local chamber groups might not be happy with this development, especially those that rely on moonlighting ASO talent for their own concerts. But if the ASO series takes off, it might build interest in the genre and will force other groups to hone their artistic profiles as they create their own valuable niches.

The concert proper, at five minutes past 8 o’clock, opened with music by Leos Janacek, a suite from his opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.” In the 1920s, the composer followed a Prague newspaper’s popular comic strip chronicling the adventures of a sharp-eared fox. From these tales he crafted an achingly bittersweet and earthy opera, where a woodsman catches a young fox and brings her home as a pet. She eats his chickens and escapes, falls in love, has her own little fox family and dies from a poacher’s bullet. (If you don’t know the opera, a good place to start is with a BBC animated version, beautifully sung in an English translation.)

The Janacek is bewitching music, although under guest conductor Jakub Hrusa (at left), a young Czech, the orchestra never found solid footing, with a few uneasy entrances and some timid phrasing. These may well clear up in subsequent performances.

Program annotator Ken Melzer, to streamline the booklet a few years ago, removed the complete list of every soloist and conductor who had ever performed a given work with the ASO, instead offering just the first-ever performance and the most recent. I miss seeing all the names that have delivered, say, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto to Atlanta, but sometimes you hit pay dirt anyway. This weekend’s concerts include Mozart’s rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major. And the first ASO classical subscription performance? William Kapell, the legendary American pianist, with founding ASO Music Director Henry Sopkin, in 1950. (Kapell was killed in a plane crash three years later, and his reputation remains as high as any American pianist’s.)

Such tidbits enrich the experience of hearing the orchestra, like knowing which great ball players have played with and against the home team in past generations. These are not mere statistics; they put the orchestra’s history into the broader context of American music and frame the audience’s thinking about the institution and about Atlanta’s cultural legacy.

Digression over. Thursday’s soloist in the Mozart A Major was Jonathan Biss, whose playing radiated personality and a certain Mozartean muscularity — might we say Kapell-like? — with handsome phrasing, crisp and assertive trills and moments of joyful beauty. The slow movement, a memorial of sorts for Johann Christian Bach (the “English Bach” and Johann Sebastian’s youngest son), was properly somber and affectionate. The finale romped with frisky abandon. Here Hrusa and the orchestra clicked, and with relatively fleet tempos, they played with and against Biss delightfully. In all, just right. (Biss’ blog shows a lot of spirit, too.)

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 is likely one of Hrusa’s specialties. He conducted it from memory and injected urgency into phrases that some conductors pass off as simply loud and folksy. He had a broad and compelling understanding of the work. Yet he did not seem concerned with sound: he didn’t get the strings to dig deep, and their tone was at its thinnest. A couple of misfired entrances and flubs suggested that the orchestra wasn’t secure in reading his baton gestures. Still, born in 1981, the Czech is already making the international rounds. His career will be watched with special interest.

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