Conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra get heaps of credit for their interesting programs — not for presenting radical works or rarities or novelty items, but for cleverly and satisfyingly juxtaposing the familiar, with a twist. This week’s ASO concert is one of the most intriguing in recent memory, at least on paper.
The theme, as Gustav Mahler asked: “What is life — and what is death?”
Before the music started, there was a lot of baggage to sort through. Carnegie Hall had invited the ASO to perform at its Spring for Music festival of American orchestras, which starts May 6. Of the programs submitted by the ASO, this is the one Carnegie accepted. Although funding for the trip never materialized, the ASO had the New York warm-up already scheduled for Atlanta’s Symphony Hall. To further complicate matters, after a snowstorm canceled the January “A King Celebration” concert, given annually to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the ASO decided to rename this Life/Death concert as the makeup for the King celebration.
It started with video comments from the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a hero of the civil rights movement and one of Dr. King’s confidants, who instructed us that “It takes radical love to defeat radical evil.”
A moment later, from up in the balcony, brass and drums sounded the stately march from Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” first performed March 5, 1695, as the queen’s coffin was carried up the aisle in Westminster Abbey. I could have listened to this short piece repeated for an entire evening — so harmonically potent, so mature and rich in humanity, so moving. (Indeed, it would have made a fine ritornello, repeated between each of the other works.)
The orchestra segued without pause into Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral,” composed in 1999 after the death of her younger brother. There’s a palpable sense of three-dimensional space in the music, created through layers of sound and subtle echoes within the orchestra. Against the background of this vast space, we hear an intimate exchange for flute and clarinet, which are the instruments Higdon and her brother played. A regular presence with the ASO — and one of the most performed of living American composers — Higdon’s music can be emotionally thin but is sincere and always well crafted. Audiences respond to it.
Then came another masterstroke of programming, with the third and most perfect act from Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” about 19 minutes of tightly argued music. The act flips expected emotions and conventions, where the troubled lovers agree to huddle together in winter for warmth and will part with the coming of springtime. “I hope winter never ends,” sings the dying seamstress Mimi.
We reaped the benefit of programming for Carnegie Hall: a deluxe cast. As Mimi, soprano Nicole Cabell (Atlanta Opera’s Pamina last season) has a voice of rare beauty and fullness, with an opulence across her range. As Rodolfo, Gregory Turay had to force his tenor into uncomfortable zones, which led to some bleating. Still, in this semi-acted concert scene, he delivered an intense performance. Soprano Amanda Squitieri and especially baritone Marco Caria, as the squabbling lovers Musetta and Marcello, were in wonderful voice; hers was sparkly bright with an edge, his was mellow yet piercing. Spano’s conducting of Puccini was transparent, an ideal accompaniment where the orchestra became a major character in the drama.
In the original Carnegie-approved plan, the evening was to start with Mahler’s “Totenfeier,” an early version of what became the opening of his Symphony No. 2 — music for the death of a “hero” — then move to J.S. Bach’s “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” Cantata No. 106 (“God’s Time Is the Best Time”), with the concert’s second half consisting of Purcell-Higdon-Puccini. Perhaps to better serve the “King Celebration” memorial, or perhaps to save on musician overtime costs (since the concert ran long), they flipped the program.
Thus, after intermission, came the Mahler, accompanied by iconic photos, projected on screens over the orchestra, of Coretta Scott King looking into her husband’s coffin, of King at home with his children and in jail and leading a sea of marchers in protest. We were invited — or forced — to consider the slain civil rights leader as Mahler’s unnamed hero. This did not work, because Mahler’s neurotic, morbid, self-obsessed protagonist appears to be the composer himself. The music did not fit the visual images and did not fit our notions (whether real or perceived) of King as a man and as a leader. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who was uncomfortable with this — not offended, just made uncomfortable by the cognitive dissonance. It seemed to sap the life out of the evening.
They closed with the Bach Funeral Cantata, crowded at the lip of the stage, with recorders and viola da gambas, a small pipe organ and a choir of 21 voices. Spano led an unfettered, elegant reading. The vocal quartet included soprano Squitieri and bass Steven Humes, making a most appealing sound. Countertenor James Laing, a young singer, offered a glassy pure and bright alto. Tenor Thomas Glenn distilled the evening’s message, singing, “Ah, Lord, teach us to remember that we must die / That we might become wise.”