The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a concert on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall composed entirely of music by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The performance was led by ASO music director Robert Spano, with ASO concertmaster David Coucheron, soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Brett Polegato. A second performance will take place at Symphony Hall on Saturday evening at 7:30.
In addition, the performers are putting the entire program on tape during nine hours of recording sessions scheduled around this weekend’s concert, to be released this fall on ASO Media. A $50,000 private donation will take care of most of the recording costs, but the symphony needs to raise another $15,000 through the ASO Media Recording Fund in order to complete the project’s budget.
Thursday’s concert opened with “The Lark Ascending,” inspired by a poem of the same name by Victorian-era English novelist and poet George Meredith. Vaughan Williams did not set Meredith’s text, but rendered an instrumental work, originally for violin and piano but transcribed later for violin and orchestra, the form in which it has become most familiar and one of the most popular pieces in the composer’s body of works. Coucheron was violin soloist for the pastoral, bucolic work, performing with a lyrical sweetness with which he has become closely identified as a performer and which aptly suits the work.
The less-often-heard Symphony No. 4, which followed, stood in great dramatic contrast to “The Lark Ascending” and the general public’s impression of Vaughan Williams’ music as being of a more arcadian demeanor. The tautness of its style, to an almost relentless degree, can be surprising to listeners more familiar with earlier works like “The Lark Ascending,” the Third Symphony or the “Songs of Travel.” Spano and the ASO turned in an energized, electric performance that well revealed the inner workings and manipulation of the short motifs on which the symphony is based. It is a fearsomely bold work, which this orchestra will record well.
Rivera, Polegato and the ASO Chorus joined Spano and the orchestra on the second half for the cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Completed in 1936, two years after the Symphony No. 4, the “Dona Nobis Pacem” is the last of Vaughan Williams’ three choral-orchestral works that feature texts by American poet Walt Whitman, the other two being “A Sea Symphony” (1903–1909) and “Toward the Unknown Region” (1906). In addition to the Whitman texts, Vaughn Williams also drew upon passages from the “Agnus Dei” and “Gloria” of the Mass, as well as passages from the Book of Jeremiah and an antiwar speech by British Quaker activist John Bright.
The Mass-derived text “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant Us Peace”) serves as a unifying thread throughout, hence the title, and is heard among the work’s first and final words — beautifully rendered by the liquid voice of soprano Rivera — and reoccur in middle sung by Rivera and by the ASO Chorus. The high point for baritone Polegato was in the third movement, “Reconciliation,” where he was first heard and where he delivered Whitman’s text with an expressive plasticity.
The ASO Chorus has a larger and more rounded sound under the new shell, and Spano followed his own lights with respect to the choral passages rather than emulate Robert Shaw’s well-known approach. It became audibly apparent in the “Reconciliation” movement as the chorus entered. Shaw approached the work with elegantly polished but rhythmically controlled phrasing, and gave attention to the razor-sharp microrhythms and sectional unisons. Spano seems to want to work for a more instinctively fluid phraseology and bloom of the choral sound to achieve expressive empathy for the words.
The risk, especially with Vaughan Williams’ carefully notated renderings of the Whitman texts, is that imprecision in sectional microrhythmic unisons can turn texts to mush — something far more annoying in one’s native tongue than in an unfamiliar language. The trade-off, with support of the hall’s new acoustical environment, is one of getting a larger, more “vocal” and blooming choral texture.
The “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which the ASO and Chorus first performed in 1977, was eventually recorded by the ASO under Shaw’s baton and released in 1998 on Telarc along with Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard” and Bartok’s “Cantata Profana.” When the new Spano-led ASO recording is released, it will be of great interest to compare the two.