The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s classical subscription concert on Thursday at Symphony Hall featured music by Verdi, Bloch and Shostakovich led by guest conductor Ilan Volkov and featuring ASO principal cellist Christopher Rex as soloist. The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The 37-year old Israeli-born Volkov is currently music director and chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed in 2011. His career has taken him from assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 2003–2009 with which he remains involved as principal guest conductor. Most interesting in Volkov’s role as curator of the three-year-old Tectonics music festival in Reykjavík and, for the last two years, also in Glasgow, with its broad emphasis on contemporary music. This evening, however, the ASO’s audience got a taste of Volkov’s conducting skills with more traditional symphonic repertoire.
The concert opened with the Overture to Verdi’s opera “I vespri siciliani.” The opera is not among Verdi’s top hits, but is occasionally performed, and the Overture has a life of its own here and there in the concert halls. It makes for a good curtain-raiser, as it did this evening.
Rex has been principal cellist of the ASO since 1979, the same year in which conductor Volkov was born. Next season will be his 35th with the ASO, literally half of the orchestra’s 70-year history. Over the course of that time he has soloed numerous times with the orchestra, but also has a highly visible presence as a recitalist and chamber musician nationwide. Locally, he’s a founding member of Georgian Chamber Players and is artistic director of both the nearby Madison Chamber Music Festival and the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in Florida.
“Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody” is the final work in what’s often called Bloch’s early “Jewish Cycle” of works and also the last work the Swiss-born composer completed before emigrating to the United States in 1916. In the composer’s own words, the work depicts “the complex, glowing, agitated soul” of the Jewish people. “Schelomo” is the Hebrew form of “Solomon.” Bloch’s original intent was to create a vocal work with text taken from Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, but in the end Bloch wrote an instrumental work for solo cello and orchestra.
As such, the solo cello part could be said to represent the voice of Solomon, but uses the entire compass of the instrument, often within the span of a few measures, far beyond what’s possible for a human voice. Rex brought forth a performance of focused intensity and expressive urgency to the complex and fluid solo cello part. Even through the several passages of ample rest for the soloist, he observably did not drop his mental or emotional engagement with the music. His part was well heard against the orchestra, which Volkov capably restrained in volume while not losing energy or drama. It proved an intensely moving conclusion to the first half of the concert.
According to his own notes and letters, Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 10 immediately after the death of Joseph Stalin, under whose hands he had often experienced suppression of his music. However, sketches of some portions of the music go back as far as 1946, just after his Symphony No. 9, a work which enraged the Soviet Russian leader for its satirical character as a piece when it had been expected to honor both Stalin and Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The symphony is signature Shostakovich. The opening slow movement is long, and in it the composer takes the audience through mostly dark and brooding sonic landscapes. The rest is essentially a figurative ideological battle between the composer and Stalin, which ends in triumphant victory for the composer and artist.
Likewise victorious for Volkov and the ASO musicians, who rendered a taut and energized performance. Indeed the whole evening was, as one audience member shouted to the passing Volkov outside Symphony Hall afterward, “a hot concert.” Well done.