Increasingly, concerts by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles have become the big events on the calendar. The Scottish-born Runnicles, who makes his Atlanta season debut this weekend, is a maestro in the old sense. In the past few years, better than most on the ASO podium, he has consistently played to his strengths — in the repertoire he chooses, in his choice of soloists as collaborators, in giving the audience a sense of both occasion and of vivid, three-dimensional music making, always deeply felt and always trying to go deeper still.
Death and the gloomy despair of humanity are often the themes of his programs, which might seem like the surest way to reach the profundities of music. (Classical music boasts an unmatched repository in the bummers of life.) But it’s on a program with musical and emotional contrasts that Runnicles tends to excel, which is why this weekend’s all-Vienna concerts were of special interest. (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)
At the beginning was Johann Strauss Jr.’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” the most famous waltz in the catalogue. At the end came Johannes Brahms’ relatively sunny Symphony No. 2 — sunny as if you’re in a thick, aromatic stand of pine trees and shafts of sunlight dapple the forest floor. Both the Strauss and Brahms are at once publicly optimistic and privately nostalgic, a very Viennese mind-set. Although conductor and orchestra were not in perfect sync Thursday, this tricky balance, both gay and sorrowful, was apparent and enticing.
In the middle, haunting and heart-wrenching, stood Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, a 1935 masterpiece that serves as a requiem on many complex levels. Outwardly, it was composed after the death of Alma Mahler’s daughter, Manon — the concerto’s subtitle reads “To the memory of an Angel.” The music seems to slip in and out of consciousness, i.e., in and out of tonality. But the Bach chorale quoted near the end, in memoriam, is also for the destruction of Austro-German culture by its own citizens, and the whole work holds an autobiographical subtext on the composer’s life and secret loves. It was Berg’s last completed work, and he died before the premiere.
Julian Rachlin, the 35-year-old violin soloist, told me he hasn’t been performing the concerto very long — that it is a piece he learned as an adult, not something he studied in conservatory as a kid. I attended the ASO Thursday, where the interpretations were in place, all the ingredients properly assembled, but the performance wasn’t yet done. From the AJC review:
“The soloist, who makes Vienna his home, was Julian Rachlin, dressed in a swanky black silk suit with a red hankie peeking from the breast pocket. His playing was in no way flashy, however. He’s a deep, careful interpreter and he played the concerto as if it were the end of the line for Romanticism, a world coming to an end. That fit with Runnicles’ slow, often ponderous tempos. But where was the Viennese lilt and charm we’d been primed to listen for after the ‘Blue Danube’ Waltz?
“Runnicles closed with Brahms’ Second Symphony, adding fresh insight to this old favorite. He had the cellos and basses articulate the lullaby phrase in the opening movement, giving it personality and warmth. Brice Andrus’ horn melodies were splendidly executed. The principal woodwind quartet — flutist Christina Smith, oboist Elizabeth Koch, clarinetist Laura Ardan and bassoonist Carl Nitchie — intertwined their phrases and bounced their lines off each other with intensity and remarkable beauty.
“Yet the symphony, like the rest of the program, wasn’t fully cooked, and not till the hard-driving sections in the third movement did the orchestra play with concentrated unity. The spirited finale took off, and finally you could sense the orchestra revel in their own power, a joy to hear.”