Gridlock traffic, primarily due to Vice President Joseph Biden’s motorcade, delayed the start of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Thursday night at Symphony Hall. After leaving a private reception held by the Democratic National Committee, the vice president and his entourage had blocked connector ramps to I-85 and I-75 that evening as it headed back to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Although the interstate ramps were re-opened by 7 p.m., it was too late to undo the massive snarl that added adversity to Atlanta’s typically tangled commute-time congestion. All the major surface streets surrounding Symphony Hall were at a near standstill.
The concert, led by ASO Music Director Robert Spano, was comprised of two works: Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto, featuring guest violinist Gil Shaham as soloist, and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the ASO Chorus and Gwinnett Young Singers. The concert will be performed again tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Hall.
The concert was about 17 minutes late when Concertmaster David Coucheron came on stage to tune the orchestra. The audience continued to pour in as Shaham and Spano took the stage. The hall was already nearly full when the music began and as more people tried to find seats – including those with ambulatory problems being assisted into end of-aisle seats – the ushers worked with an amazing degree of quietness.
After the first movement ended, Shaham and Spano whispered to each other, and Shaham took the opportunity to re-tune his violin while a long pause ensued to allow more people to come inside. Even then, some 30 patrons were unable to be seated, and watched the rest of the Bartok on a Galleria video monitor. Which was all a shame, because this was, for me, the best ASO concert of the season so far.
The career of Shaham, 42, had beginnings as a prodigy. Born in Urbana, Illinois, the son of Israeli scientists Meira Diskin and Jacob Shaham, the family moved back to Israel when Gil was only two. Growing up there, Shaham made his solo debut with the Jerusalem Symphony at age 10 and within a year performed with the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta. He subsequently studied with Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang at the Juilliard School in New York.
In 1989, at age 18, Shaham subbed for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman in concerts with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, performing the Bruch and Sibelius violin concertos. He recorded the Bruch on his first album, released the following year. Nearly a decade later, Shaham recorded Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 for Deutsche Grammophon with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That was Shaham’s 18th album.
Thursday’s performance of the Bartók was superb. Shaham was lively on stage, almost impish — like a Puck with a violin — moving, bounding about as he played everything in the complex score’s wide expressive range, from robust and rhythmic to exquisitely lyrical. He is a musician whose infectious happiness and optimistic personality comes across both onstage and off. Passing in the hallway afterward, as he headed to the lobby to autograph CDs, Shaham remarked about the orchestra cheerfully, sincerely: “They were great, weren’t they?”
Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” completed in 1936, only two years before Bartók’s concerto, has grown to become of one of a handful of 20th-century “box office certainties” for symphony orchestras and has worked its way deeply into American popular culture almost exclusively through its doppelganger opening and closing movement, “Fortuna imperatrix mundi,” most commonly known by its opening words, “O Fortuna.”
All three vocal soloists comported themselves well. Soprano Kiera Duffy was the right voice for her part: clear and lyrical, vital and present, but not overbearing; Marco Panuccio proved a fine lyric tenor; Nmon Ford, who can be heard on the ASO’s 2010 Grammy-winning Telarc CD, Transmigration, lent his copious and lissome baritone to the majority of the vocal solos.
The new acoustical shell is highly supportive of voice, and brings the ASO Chorus a remarkable fresh glow to their sound, which had recently become increasingly edgy at the top in the last few years under the old one. The new shell is a fabulous sonic environment for them, and fans of choral-orchestral repertoire should not miss a chance to hear them in it. It also suited well the clear, articulate voices of the Gwinnett Young Singers, who were front and center on the choral risers.