Thursday night’s subscription concert by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra offered up a world premiere, a beloved piano concerto and a nonconformist symphony from the early 20th century.
The program led off with the premiere of “La Luna Azul” (“Blue Moon”), a 14-minute work by Adam Schoenberg, commissioned by Spano himself. This musical essay was inspired by the true-life “love at first sight” relationship between Schoenberg and his wife, playwright and screenwriter Janine Salinas. The two met and hit it off in 2010 while at the MacDowell Colony artists’ retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
The relationship also has inspired a previous work, Schoenberg’s Piano Trio, from which he drew material for “La Luna Azul.” “I had always felt it as a symphonic piece,” the composer said of the trio in an interview with ArtsATL.
The piece starts out quietly with an evocative, slow section, with long drones and a placid melody. Blossoming phrases emerge, with rubato-sounding interjections from instruments here and there. The interjections become more rhythmic, increasing in prominence and tartness against the lush primary texture, then calming again.
At about six-and-a-half minutes in, the piece takes a turn and launches into a joyful, somewhat John Adams-like faster section of bouncy rhythms and shifting meters. Then low brass take the helm with a repeated sequence of chords, over which builds an Afro-Cuban-influenced percussive groove and more jaunty wind figures. The low brass figure is handed off to the strings in a pulsating ground beat, over which a blazing, syncopated trumpet line arches. The low brass return, with the pulsating strings briefly coming back to spar with them under persistently active woodwinds above.
The final chords of the low brass give way to a wonderfully relaxed, gently rocking conclusion in 5/8 meter, slowly fading to a final sustained note in the first oboe, lightly punctuated at the end by a single pizzicato note in lower strings capped by the “ting” of a small triangle.
In the end, “La Luna Azul” deserves a descriptor not often afforded contemporary music: beautiful. The engaging, energetic second section, I found, was a lot less harried than expected based on prior description. One can hear tinges of other composers here and there, John Adams and Alberto Ginastera (more so than Aaron Copland) among them. All composers absorb influences in the process of forging their own voices, and Adam Schoenberg, who at 31 appears to have a long and substantive career ahead of him, is establishing his.
The Piano Concerto in A minor by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, the only concerto he completed, is one of the most popular piano concertos in the standard repertoire, and pianist Andre Watts was a perfect match for the piece on Thursday night. His performance was like an exquisite old vintage wine, matured to perfection. Watts’ warmth and assurance at the keyboard and the ease of his musical interaction with Spano and the ASO brought forth no musical surprises, but a rock-solid and thoroughly engaging “old school” performance that soared with persuasive expression.
Although firmly established in the international symphonic repertoire, Carl Nielsen isn’t exactly on the Top 10 list for the average symphony audience. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, Spano’s choice for concluding the evening, is one of the composer’s most frequently performed works. Colorful and rangy, with a nonconventional structure, it is one of only two of his symphonies to lack a descriptive subtitle, but it definitely follows a descriptive narrative. That it is a tonal essay of sorts is something it shares with Schoenberg’s opening work.
Nielsen is rather explicit with his verbal description — in a nutshell, wandering over and pondering the presence of evil in the world and the inevitable triumph of good over it. Spano led a splendidly satisfying performance, which included notable featured passages by principal clarinetist Laura Ardan and percussionist Tom Sherwood, whose sharply stenciled snare drum part portrayed the antagonistic menace of evil.
The concert was repeated Friday night and will be performed again on Sunday, March 4, at 3 p.m.