The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 67th season Thursday night with two blockbusters: excerpts from Wagner’s “Ring” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, in an edition by Gustav Mahler. This is the kind of evening Atlanta likes: big, loud, tonal, familiar, and with vocal elements. It also played to the strengths of Robert Spano, who is starting his 11th season as ASO music director. When not having fun with contemporary music, Spano seems to prefer that part of the repertoire where the conductor can get a little dramatic. There are two remaining performances, tonight at 8 and Sunday at 3. For tickets, click here.
The “Ring” Cycle, four operas, is a massive work. Many would argue that it’s the greatest musical achievement mankind has managed. It has never been performed in Atlanta, and bits and pieces are what we get. But a taste of the “Ring” is better than nothing. Spano, who has conducted full “Ring” cycles at the Seattle Opera to some acclaim, deserves to show the home-town crowd what he has mastered on the road.
For those who heard those performances in Seattle, the great contrast is that ASO players are much better at this than the Seattle Opera orchestra, even when playing their bread-and-butter repertoire. Of course, musicians who are sitting on a stage tend to sound clearer and better than those in an orchestra pit. Here, it was possible to revel in the fine detailed playing of every moment in the score: the discipline of the brass, the coordinated entrances, the lush tone of the strings.
The ASO played three excerpts. The “Ride of the Valkyries” is hardly the most profound music in the “Ring,” but it is the most familiar. And in this spirited performance, it was used effectively to get the juices going and get the audience into the Wagner groove. This led into the music of “Siegfreid’s Death and Funeral March.” Here, Spano unleashed his inner Georg Solti with an interpretation on the high end of the dramatic scale. Experienced Wagnerites might prefer something a bit less ostentatious, but this was about as good an argument as you’ll hear for the window-rattling approach.
For the “Immolation Scene” — the end of the world in the opera — we finally got to hear some singing. Some magnificent singing, actually. Dramatic soprano Christine Brewer, a regular visitor to Symphony Hall, sang Brünnhilde’s farewell. With a mesmerizing combination of power and opulent colors, she may have the best vocal chops of any of the current group of singers who can handle this role, a very elite group. She sings with grace and ease, and it is only when you think about all the others who have struggled through this material that you realize what a rare occasion you are experiencing. There was no need for Spano and the orchestra to hold anything back, and the world came to a fittingly fiery conclusion before the intermission.
“Nobody follows James Brown.” That’s what Brown said in 1964, upon learning that a bunch of upstarts from London were scheduled to go after him at a concert. Brown pulled out all the stops as the Rolling Stones watched in horror from the wings. It took a while for them to recover. In this case, it was poor Beethoven who had to follow the show of shows. His Ninth Symphony is one of the few works that could plausibly hold its own in such a situation, and in this case we were soon busy enough to have set the “Ring” aside for a time.
Like the “Ring,” the Ninth Symphony is a work that tolerates a good bit of dramatic license on the part of the conductor, and Spano is not one to miss this sort of opportunity. The opening movement established the ground rules: this was going to be a big one. Lots of tension, plenty of contrast, hair-raising sounds. Mahler’s “retouches” to Beethoven’s original heightened all this. The scherzo was suitably manic. But the revelation was in the adagio, obviously aided by the contrast with the earlier explosions. There was still the tension that pervades this unsettling work, but there was a glow to the sound of the orchestra, and sweep, and precision. It was as if the orchestra had spent the entire summer just rehearsing this work.
The final movement is where the chorus and soloists come in, and this is usually where the ASO, with the Robert Shaw legacy, excels. This is certain to be the climactic point of the evening, and nothing seemed amiss. Still, it wasn’t the heart-stopper you might have expected. Perhaps the “Ode to Joy” is one of those tunes that have been excerpted and appropriated so much in our culture of sound-bites that it has lost some of its magic, damaged by ubiquity. Or perhaps it was the power of all that came before on this fine night. It deserves to be said that the ASO Chorus, prepared by Norman Mackenzie, was in excellent form. The male soloists, Vinson Cole and Nathan Berg, were suitably resonant if a bit tremulous. Nancy Maultsby, the mezzo, sang securely. And Brewer, returning as the soprano, could be heard soaring over it all.