ArtsATL > Music > ASO review: Mozart and a world premiere, but Coucheron’s Bach steals the show

ASO review: Mozart and a world premiere, but Coucheron’s Bach steals the show

The applause for David Coucheron’s Mozart concerto was enthusiastic, with the expected standing O that all soloists receive in Symphony Hall. He must have felt relief after a solid showing for his first solo concerto since becoming, in September, the Atlanta Symphony’s concertmaster. At 26, he’s billed as the youngest major-orchestra concertmaster in America.

As Coucheron and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano returned for another bow, the violinist walked to front and center while the conductor headed to the chairs at the back of the stage, behind the horns. He wanted to listen, too.

Playing a 1753 Guadagnini violin, the strapping Norwegian launched into the fugue from J.S. Bach’s G minor Sonata No. 1, and finally he took flight. He was so at ease with this treacherously difficult music — in terms of balancing virtuosity with expression – that he put us at ease and we could concentrate on the music. We hung on his every phrase. The man can play Bach, beautifully. (That he plays a 1753 Guadagnini and also a 1725 Stradivari will be the subject of a future ArtsCriticATL article.)

It was a reminder that the term “virtuosity” is often more an attitude, a comportment, than a description of athleticism. For many touring solo musicians, it’s a version of machismo. Coucheron isn’t macho in that sense, but he’s dead-on accurate and lyrical and fluid. Although he’s been leader of the violins for just six months — what Spano calls “the shoulder of the orchestra,” where the conductor is presumably the head — you can already hear the ASO strings gravitating toward his looser, sweeter sonic style. That subtle shift might partly account for the exceptional ASO performances of late: the orchestra is more at ease, sounding better and playing better. (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)

The evening opened with the fifth of 10 planned fanfares to celebrate Spano’s decade as music director. This week’s world premiere was by Alvin Singleton, a Brooklyn-born composer who moved to Atlanta in the 1980s as Robert Shaw’s composer-in-residence and has lived in Midtown ever since.

Alvin Singleton (Photo by Jo Eldredge Morrissey)

Singleton’s “Miaka Kumi” — or “10 years” in Swahili — lasts four minutes and covers many moods. Like other Singleton pieces, there’s an edge and a spareness to the music. It seems to hold an unspoken meaning, as if there’s an agenda not reflected in the program notes. By design, it was scored for the forces on stage that evening, a Mozart-sized band. At the end, a somber solo trumpet, offering a flicker of “Taps” or some distant melancholy, leaves a haunting impression. It all left me wanting to hear it again.

Singleton had been preparing another ASO commission, a major orchestral work, scheduled to premiere June 2-4. The orchestra has recorded several of his works over the years, and this new one seemed destined for its own label, ASO Media. But the composer slipped on ice during the recent snow shutdown, injured his right hand, hasn’t been able to play the piano or compose, and thus had to postpone the premiere until next season.

The rest of the concert was entirely Mozart, with four masterpieces covering a range of expression.

In the “Turkish” Violin Concerto, nicknamed for the Janissary military music lampooned in the finale, Coucheron started with great joy and infectious high spirits. His phrasing was elegant with a touch of whimsy. His trills buzzed as fast as bumblebee’s wings. Although his interpretation was standard and sometimes low-key — it must be noted that he’d been flu-ish all week — his concentrated tone is a thing of beauty, at once honeyed and pearly and relaxed. There’s no hint of metal in his tone.

Mozart’s C minor Serenade No. 12, for eight woodwinds, was composed between “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.” In the genre of four-movement al fresco summer party music, it sets a standard that will never be surpassed. With oboist Elizabeth Koch at one end of the semi-circle of musicians and clarinetist Laura Ardan at the other, the serenade received a fragrant, tender, soulful reading. (But backstage someone was banging on a piano, which leaked into the auditorium and which the audience could hear. Did it sound like Brahms?)

With the orchestra, Spano dispatched the “Marriage of Figaro” Overture with punch and crisp articulation. It seemed as if they were assembling a jigsaw puzzle at top speed, or like one of those kids who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in seconds flat — more an intellectual exercise than a curtain-raiser to an opera of high comedy and warm humanity.

In the “Prague” Symphony, to close the evening, the conductor let the woodwinds shape their lines and had the violins carve bold statements. Spano’s Mozart isn’t especially affectionate, and there’s a distinct lack of sensuality, or sexiness, in the interpretation. But in the Andante middle movement, best of all, he let the music take its own time. That hesitancy, a certain peacefulness, made it seem a few minutes out of time.

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