On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played the second of its three free Piedmont Park concerts this month, this one led by the ASO’s new assistant conductor, Joseph Young. As with the previous concert led by guest conductor Gemma New, this concert also drew a capacity audience of about 3,000, limited by its location in the Promenade area on the park’s north side. Young will again lead the orchestra at Piedmont Park next Thursday, but tickets became available for that concert only Friday morning and within a few hours were completely sold out.
Young made his debut with the ASO last Saturday, in a Side by Side concert that featured half local students and half ASO professionals. In that concert, the highlight was from the early 20th century, excerpted from Stravinsky’s Firebird. This week’s park concert was all 19th-century fare, in an audience-oriented, all-pro context. Young and the orchestra played the entire piece like a strong flush poker hand.
The concert opened with the Overture to Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville. While the amplification at the beginning seemed unbalanced and with an audio spectrum on par with AM radio, by the end of the overture the sound had reached a much more appealing status. Nevertheless, Young and the orchestra brought forth an energetic, spirited rendering of this popular light classic.
It was a good setup for the suite of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” that followed. The handful of selections, only a few of the 21 that Brahms wrote or adapted, ended with the one best known by the broader public, the Hungarian Dance No. 5. Across the board, very good choices of tempos by Young, and good attention to phrases and individual notes; he captured the essence of style in an assured manner, something vital for music played in an outdoor context.
Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio italien,” inspired by the Russian composer’s experiences of Rome at the time of Carnival in 1880, rounded out the first half. The 15-minute work opens with a bold military bugle call and then works its way through various Italian melodies on its way to a scurrying tarantella that ends it with a bang.
Following a 20-minute intermission and without additional commentary, Young and the orchestra launched directly into the big work of the evening, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, one of the composer’s most cheerfully optimistic works, which was given a sunny, compelling performance.
The unannounced encore was Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Happily, the performance was not tossed-off, but was played with the same attention and verve as the rest of the program.
The entire performance was as a summer classical concert-in-the-park should be: convincing, the musicians fully engaged with the music and delivering it to the audience. This is one great way to rebuild consciousness of the core classical symphonic repertoire on the general public’s ear.
The Piedmont Park concerts have been a longtime part of Atlanta’s cultural legacy since the first ASO concert in June 1976, with then music director Robert Shaw at the helm. The concerts were suspended after 2007 because of a severe two-year drought that raised fears of significant damage to the park and its lawns from large public events.
Then something else dried up: the funding for free summer concerts. But last spring, a push for specific funding restored limited, free ASO concerts to Piedmont Park, thanks to support from a coalition of private and public sector interests.
Now the question arises: If you can “sell out” three Piedmont Park concerts in a row to capacity audiences of 3,000, what can you do to open them up to a much larger public audience, as was the case in the Piedmont concerts of years ago, when 15,000 to 30,000 regularly attended ASO concerts on the great south lawn of the park? The demand for the ASO is clearly there. It’s now up to city leaders to decide how to feed that public hunger for the music.