Last week involved a long and oddball schedule for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The only common thread throughout for the orchestra was principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and the Symphony No. 4 of Johannes Brahms.
The week’s first concert, on Wednesday, was a sold-out special presentation that featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Sir Edward Elgar’s sole Cello Concerto, Op. 85, paired with the aforementioned Brahms symphony. The audience was allowed to fill the choral risers onstage, which were set up for the Saturday and Sunday performances when the ASO Chorus would join Runnicles and the orchestra.
There was no Thursday concert on the schedule and Friday was yet another of those “shorty” First Friday events in which only Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was performed.
In what is uncommon for concerts where they appear, the ASO Chorus was in the spotlight for the first half of the program Saturday and Sunday. They performed three of Brahms’ somewhat shorter choral-orchestral works. Altogether, they totaled 41 minutes of music: “Gesang der Parzen,” (“Song of the Fates”) Op. 89 and “Schicksalslied,” (“Song of Destiny”) Op. 54, both for mixed chorus, and the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, for alto soloist and four-part men’s chorus.
English translations for projected surtitles were by the ASO’s program annotator, Ken Meltzer, and were not printed in the program booklet. It seemed at first as if the surtitles were going to be lost because of a projection screen that didn’t descend, but it fortunately unfurled shortly after “Gesang der Parzen” began.
Programming these three choral works together offered some important historical resonance — the last time they were performed by the ASO and Chorus was in 1988, when they were also bunched together under the baton of Robert Shaw and subsequently recorded for Telarc Records. One wag at the time referred to them as “Shaw’s party pieces.” Since they are somewhat new to a number of the post-Shaw era singers, that helped allow Runnicles to put his own stamp on the performances: all warm-hued, expansive renderings that were well-suited for the music and the texts by Goethe and Hölderlin.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor has become an ASO guest vocalist staple. The “Alto Rhapsody” is unquestionably for “alto” solo voice, not your typical mezzo. The vocal part goes only up to a G-flat at the top of the staff, which is demanded of the soloist only once. But it also drops to the vocal Netherworld, the ledger line domain below the staff, where Brahms at one point writes a low A-flat, while offering a pair of alternative notes for singers who can’t hack it. But O’Connor has the necessary oomph and rich color to the low end of her range to nail it solidly.
Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 made up the second half of the concert, and Runnicles’ take on it is a deliberate, sumptuous and unhurried rendering rather than a lean, sprinting one. The litmus test for that approach is the third movement, marked “Allegro giocoso,” where too slow a tempo can be deadly. But Runnicles let it move apace with energy and forward drive, without being too fast. It retained the robust, broadly rounded sound that marked the entire piece. Alas, one of the downsides overall was that the orchestral ensemble did not feel entirely razor sharp; there were at least two moments where winds and strings felt at odds with each other in terms of agreement upon where the beat happened to be, a rather unusual occurrence for this band.
Runnicles will return to the ASO podium this week with music by Beethoven and Richard Strauss, including the latter’s Oboe Concerto, which features ASO principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione as soloist. The ASO Chorus will now gear up for end-of-the-month performances of Britten’s “War Requiem” with Robert Spano, both in Atlanta at Symphony Hall and New York City at Carnegie Hall.