ArtsATL > Music > Review: ASO debuts composer Charles Zoll, violinist Joshua Bell takes a star turn on Brahms

Review: ASO debuts composer Charles Zoll, violinist Joshua Bell takes a star turn on Brahms

Spano with guest violinist Joshua Bell. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Spano with guest violinist Joshua Bell. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Robert Spano with guest violinist Joshua Bell. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

Thursday’s classical subscription concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Charles Zoll, Hindemith and Brahms, led by ASO music director Robert Spano with superstar violinist Joshua Bell as soloist. The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. and on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. This week’s concerts are the penultimate set in the orchestra’s 2013–14 season.

Up first, however, was the season’s final preconcert chamber music performance at 6:45 p.m. It began with “Two Rhapsodies” by Charles Martin Loeffler, performed by oboist Elizabeth Tiscione, violist Jessica Oudin and pianist Alex Wasserman. Next, a collection of music for brass by Dahl, Hindemith and Brahms, performed by trumpeters Mike Tiscione and Stuart Stephenson, hornist Richard Deane, trombonists Nathan Zgonc, Colin Williams and Brian Hecht and principal tuba Michael Moore. It was a delightful prelude to the main event.

The full orchestral concert opened at 8 p.m. with the world premiere of “Asimov at Star’s End” by Charles Zoll. Zoll was commissioned to write the piece as part of the prize for winning the Rapido! Take Three!!! composition contest in January of last year. At the time, Zoll was a 21-year-old undergraduate student. He’s currently a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, but the consequences of his Rapido! win have now thrust the affable young composer into the professional limelight.

In his notes, Zoll writes that “Asimov at Star’s End” depicts “the five books of the Foundation series” of novels by Isaac Asimov. Now, before the sci-fi nerds begin shouting and waving their iPads, I’ll say it: yes, there are seven books in the series proper, not five. Zoll knows that.

It’s much like how the Star Wars movies evolved: George Lucas created the original Star Wars in 1977, then two more before creating three prequel films. So the original became number four in the series. Same deal with Foundation: following the first five novels, Asimov wrote two prequels. Rather than explain the story of Foundation here, readers may find it helpful to note that Asimov’s own inspiration was Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Spano with composer Charles Zoll.
Spano with composer Charles Zoll.

All literary parallels aside, the important question is, Does Zoll’s music work in the abstract? It does, for the most part. It’s not the average symphony concertgoer’s cup of tea, but for those open to the style, the piece hangs together as a whole. It is decidedly complex, with often treacherous rhythmic figures that play against shifting meters and tempos.

For the listener, it’s most interesting to step back and listen to the interweaving textures and colors, within which the rhythmic details are undercurrents. The ending, played on just marimba and kaiamba (a kind of shaker significant to the music of Mozambique), evokes a sentiment of restoring a more natural essence to the human experience.

Hindemith’s “Symphony: Mathis der Maler” is a work that has long been missed from the ASO’s repertoire. The last time they performed it was in 1989, under Yoel Levi. The work directly evokes paintings of Reformation-era artist Matthias Grünewald of the Isenheim Altarpiece he did for the Monastery of St. Anthony near Colmar, France.

The opening movement, “Angelic Concert,” felt at times under-rehearsed, though it had its glowing moments as well. The second, entitled “Entombment,” was austere and solemn in expression. Drama came with the final movement, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” and its tumultuous, recitative-like slow opening, followed by a pace of relentless urgency. Contrasting episodes lead to a complex, contrapuntal resolution that ended with triumphant “alleluias” in the brass for a brightly ringing conclusion.

Joshua Bell is a violinist who keeps evolving, moving his art and craft forward. He could easily take his fame and coast, like some other artists, but he does not. Each time he returns to Atlanta to perform, he just seems to get better and better. This evening’s performance of Brahms Violin Concerto was no exception. Between Bell, Spano and the orchestra, we were treated to a very sunny, compelling rendering of this serious, challenging work. The traditional benchmark for the first movement’s cadenza remains that of Joachim, but Bell’s original cadenza work proved a substantive contender.

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