Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by J. S. Bach, Sibelius and Beethoven led by guest conductor Leonidas Kavakos, who doubled as violin soloist. The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. and again on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m.
The concert opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, directed by Kavakos from the solo violin spot. It is evident from his recordings, even YouTube videos, that Kavakos is a formidable violinist, but on this evening with the Bach he seemed to phone it in. There was nothing remarkable about it. I can think of more than a handful of ASO violinists whom I’d rather have heard solo, not simply due to their capable technical skills but also their level of musical engagement.
The “Pelleas and Mélisande” suite by Sibelius came next, rearranged from his incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama of the same name. The score calls for one player to alternate between oboe and English horn, and offered substantial featured moments for principal oboe Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, notably the extended English horn melody in the second movement that introduces the character Mélisande. Otherwise, the piece is not one of the composer’s top works, and through some of its course of nine movements threatened to induce a nap under Kavakos’ direction.
Two down, the litmus test would come after intermission. That was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), which started off with a bang and at a fast clip. When it comes to Beethoven’s tempos, the debate within both the musical and academic world is legion. When Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 3, he did not yet own a metronome, and the first edition carried no numeric metronome marks. All subsequent editions do, and they are consistent.
Beethoven marks the opening at 60 dotted half notes per minute. That’s one 3/4 measure per second, but there again is some debate. Part of that debate lies with the ongoing question of whether his metronome did not work properly and was “off” by more than a miniscule bit. Some conductors simply ignore Beethoven’s metronome markings altogether, favoring slower tempos, but they do so at their artistic peril. In the right hands, those curiously fast tempos can make good musical sense.
Kavakos, if anything, leans in the opposite direction, that is, his more-than-Beethovenishly fast tempos felt rushed. Not so much the first movement, which threatened hope that the concert would finally be greatly enlivened to a level of high excitement. But when the second movements came along, it felt too fast, as did the final two movements. Kudos to the ASO’s top-gun horn section, which nobly rose to the occasion to meet some resultant tempo-versus-breath challenges.
The impression overall is that Kavakos knows what he wants from the music but does not have the stick technique to fully communicate it. Nor the extensive podium experience. In the case of Kavakos and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, it’s worth noting that last week — when he was performing the Berg Violin Concerto with New York Philharmonic — it was Bernard Haitink on the podium, and Haitink also conducted Beethoven’s Third Symphony to conclude that concert. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe summed up the performance by writing “A muted ‘Eroica’ is no ‘Eroica.’”
Perhaps Kavakos was trying to avoid that with his own forward-leaning tempos in these Atlanta concerts. He will conduct it again in a pair of all-Beethoven concerts in early June with the London Symphony Orchestra, where he will also lead Beethoven’s Triple Concerto while playing the solo violin — a work that poses enough balance problems even with a dedicated conductor who is not simultaneously trying to play violin.
We evidently live in a time where it is a trendy fad for major violinists to try to expand their careers as conductors — witness notably Joshua Bell, who had been a classmate of Kavakos at Indiana University, and Itzhak Perlman, who is much less successful as conductor than he is megastar violinist. It is an understandable tactic for top solo artists to want to have conducting skills as part of their bag of professional tools, just in case, but it is not necessarily something for which they are universally suited.