It’s a time of economic austerity for some arts groups, full-out apocalyptic panic for others. For the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, opening its 66th season Thursday in Symphony Hall, the debt is huge but spirits remain high — with a savvy new president, Stanley Romanstein, a fresh-faced new concertmaster from Norway, David Coucheron, a redecorated lobby and a music director celebrating a decade on the podium.
The evening opened, as these sorts of evenings often do, with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” done as a fervent singalong by the near-capacity audience. It’s hard to put away the image created by Virgil Thomson in his famous line about our national anthem in the concert hall: “We gulped it down standing, like a cocktail.” (Photos by Jeff Roffman.)
The two big works on the program made a nice pairing, conjuring images of young women who dwell on the edge of fantasy and as real-life muses. Mozart’s “Mlle. Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto was dedicated to a now-forgotten female virtuoso pianist. Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” was inspired by an Irish actress who is now immortal for being the object of Berlioz’s infatuation in the “Symphonie fantastique.” In both works there are delightful gender switches, a male protagonist and feminine qualities in abundance.
Although he’s been in a slump for more than a decade, pianist André Watts, the soloist in the Mozart concerto, remains a popular artist — in part because he puts the audience in the mood to enjoy his playing, with theatrical mannerisms and a certain panache. Conducted by Robert Spano, the Berlioz, a sonic spectacle, will likely better congeal in subsequent performances. (It’s worth remembering, too, that the ASO is rarely its best on opening night, after a summer spent mostly on undemanding pops repertoire, shuttling between various outdoor venues.)
Surprisingly, then, the evening belonged to a two-minute gem, which was played after the national anthem: Christopher Theofanidis’ “Une Certaine Joie de Vivre,” given its world premiere. As I wrote in an AJC review, it’s the first in a series of fanfares, 10 in all, commissioned by the ASO to celebrate Spano’s 10 years as music director. Spano will conduct nine of them across the year; ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, who was appointed at the same time as Spano, will lead one. With the season already under way, however, the list of composers still isn’t finalized.
Along with Theofanidis and the other members of the so-called “Atlanta School” of composers — including Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi and the young Adam Schoenberg — we might hear fanfares written by Spano and Runnicles themselves, by chorus master Norman Mackenzie (involving the ASO Chorus) and by Atlantan Alvin Singleton. Two other high-profile composers, regular visitors to Symphony Hall and the darlings of critics, have also been asked.
Some of the dates are already in flux: Higdon was penciled in for her fanfare in an all-Mozart program February 3-6, but, swamped with commissions since her 2010 Pulitzer Prize, she has already asked to have her date pushed back to later in the season. (Above photo, from left: Gandolfi, Schoenberg, Spano, Romanstein, Theofanidis and Higdon.)
What’s sweet is that all these musicians have deep and ongoing relationships with Spano and the ASO. Under Spano’s decade-long tenure, an expanding group of active composers have been made to feel at home. Their sincerity in celebration should be evident in these fanfares. The guidelines were simple: about two to three minutes long, and using the same instruments as are already on the assigned program. Higdon, for example, would have had to use a Mozart-sized orchestra for her fanfare. Thanks to the large and varied Berlioz orchestra, Theofanadis had a wide palette of possibilities.
In Theofanidis’ score, the opening is marked “Grandma friendly,” perhaps alerting the musicians to phrase the music as if it’s a front-porch singalong. After an introduction of tolling bells, we get the sensation of bagpipes, of a drone in the cellos and basses and a folksy, lilting, Scottish-sounding tune up above. There’s lots of air and sunlight in the music, and a radiant optimism. In the category of two-minute fanfares, it strikes many perfect notes.