“It’s the Olympics.” That’s how Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concertmaster David Coucheron refers to playing New York’s Carnegie Hall. He has a point. For each performer, it is an improbable journey, a lifelong elimination game. Like the best athletes, classical musicians train from childhood, observing a regimen from which most people demur. Few set foot on that storied stage. “You know you’ve made it when you play there,” says Coucheron, 30, a native of Norway.
On Saturday, the ASO will add another highlight to its improbable journey with a return to the auditorium at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. They’ll play the Brahms masterpiece Ein Deutsches Requiem and a new work by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. It’ll be ASO music director Robert Spano’s 10th consecutive year as a headliner at Carnegie, and a banner occasion for orchestra and venue alike — the concert celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of former conductor and choral music giant Robert Shaw.
It was Shaw’s infectious perfectionism that elevated the Atlanta Symphony to a world-class ensemble in the 1970s, and educated hundreds of choral conductors through his Carnegie Hall workshops. “We’re still standing on his shoulders today,” says ASO chorus director Norman Mackenzie.
When the ASO hired rising American conductor Robert Spano — affectionately dubbed “R.S. Two” by the chorus — it was widely considered a coup among orchestra professionals. “It was Shaw who made the Atlanta Symphony attractive for people like Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles [the ASO principal guest conductor],” says Mackenzie. Both Spano, 54, and Runnicles joined the organization in 2001.
The ASO’s appearance at Carnegie Hall is the culmination of a season that celebrates Shaw’s legacy. They’ve played one large-scale choral work after another; a feast of favorites for Shaw’s beloved Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The Carnegie program will put the chorus through its paces. Brahms’s score is a “70-minute stamina test,” says Mackenzie. “They’ve got 20-23 minutes of singing before they even sing the first measure of the Brahms Requiem. There aren’t too many choruses that could do that.” He laughs. “I hope we can.”
The orchestra’s rehearsals for the Carnegie Hall program started the second week of April, days before the program was performed in Atlanta. Backstage at the Woodruff Arts Center, a sense of sureness and optimism pervaded among the musicians; morale had come a long way since the disastrous lockout of 2014.
Spano, their boisterous leader, clearly enjoyed being in the community of musicians. His rehearsals had a friendly, collaborative atmosphere. He joked with the players as he made his way onstage. Then he let them play; and they played through everything with little tampering on his part. The uninitiated observer might wonder why this maestro made so few adjustments. In fact, at the following rehearsal it became clear he’d kept mental notes of everything that happened the day before. He then made quick work of skipping through the program, correcting, adjusting, and drilling if necessary. “Robert has a very wonderful and efficient way of rehearsing,” says Coucheron. And he’s ever the entertainer.
On the podium, when one of Leshnoff’s repeated rhythms fell out of sync, Spano injected his own words into the music: “Do — not — rush — this rhythm. Do — not — rush — this rhythm.” The orchestra laughed; problem solved.
There are a lot of things that happened before the chorus and orchestra met. Spano discussed the bowings for the violin parts with Coucheron. “I think of the bow as the lungs of the instrument,” says Coucheron. It follows that the bowings of the violin section make the music breathe.
In rehearsal, Spano’s attention to bowing continued: “More bow. Less bow. Hold back slightly; save a little bow to add a bloom across the barline.”
In advance of the Carnegie Hall rehearsals, Spano pored over the choral parts with Mackenzie. Typically, Mackenzie gets about seven rehearsals before they sing for Spano; this time he got only four, owing to the extra choral concerts. “Fortunately for the Brahms, we knew we could rely on corporate memory,” says tenor and choral administrator Jeffrey Baxter. (It helps that their music still has the meticulous annotations of Shaw, himself.)
Two days before the performance, Mackenzie continued to fine-tune Brahms’s memorial to the dead. “At letter A, that hairpin,” he called out, “[going from soft to loud to soft] comes at the first syllable. You’re very good at the crescendo; not so good at bringing it back down.”
Two hundred pencils marked the decrescendos. When the chorus sang it again, the difference was startling. It sounded almost like weeping. In fact, they were singing in German the words, “Blessed are they that mourn.”
When Spano arrived, he continued to refine the performance. “The color wants more mystery here. How do we get that?”
“Change color,” said Mackenzie. The choristers again marked their parts. Spano backed them up a few bars and started again. This time, the character of the voices darkened suddenly, putting a veil over the music.
There is one principle that Spano, Carnegie Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Shaw share: a steadfast commitment to contemporary music. The idea of giving a concert on Shaw’s birthday –100 years to the day — evolved into the joint commission between the two organizations that became Jonathan Leshnoff’s oratorio Zohar.
Zohar was inspired by the Jewish mystical text, but its construction is tied to the Brahms. Leshnoff used Brahms’s smaller, 19th century orchestra; a special challenge for a 21st century guy. “At first I thought, ‘Oy vey,’” says Leshnoff. “‘Only two trumpets.’” But then he admitted using the smaller orchestra “made me a better composer.” In keeping with the Brahms, Leshnoff gave the two soloists (soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nmon Ford) some big moments, but that’s where the similarity ends. The rhythms in Zohar are wildly varied. It is an athletic high-wire act; hard to count, hard to play, and easy to muddle — but very likely to be a crowd-pleaser.
Ultimately, Spano’s Carnegie Hall program is more than a tribute to his predecessor. In one bold stroke, he offers a testament to the quality and virtuosity of his orchestra and chorus. To be sure, this is a shrewd pairing of a best-loved classic and a shiny, new show-off piece. Spano isn’t just playing to the audience; he’s playing to the critics. “It’s what puts us on the national map,” says Coucheron. And proudly proclaims: We are Atlanta.