Thursday evening’s subscription series concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Mark Grey and Gustav Mahler, led by ASO music director Robert Spano. Guest vocal soloists were soprano Jessica Rivera and tenor Stuart Skelton. The concert was repeated Friday night.
At 6:30 p.m., there was a free pre-concert celebration in the Galleria in front of Symphony Hall honoring Atlanta’s public safety officials. The opening of the concert was modified for the occasion as well. A formal color guard in full dress uniform marched onstage to honor Atlanta’s first responders, taking their position front-and-center. The orchestra began to play “The Star Spangled Banner” and the guard rendered honors, dipping forward all but the American flag as the audience rose to sing.
Next came the world premiere of an expanded, full orchestral version of Grey’s “Ātash Sorushān” (“Fire Angels”), with a libretto by writer and theater artist Niloufar Talebi, who is currently a resident artist with American Lyric Theater in New York City.
Grey is perhaps better known as a sound designer for composer John Adams, having worked on Adams’ projects such as “Doctor Atomic” and “On the Transmigration of Souls.” But as a composer, he was already exposed to Atlanta audiences in 2011 through a fanfare he wrote to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the tenures of Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles with the ASO. Grey has also been commissioned to write a full-length symphonic work for the ASO to premiere early in the 2015–16 season.
The original chamber version of “Fire Angels” was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was premiered by Rivera and chamber ensemble, plus electronic sound design, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in 2011. This orchestral version, which excludes the electronics, was commissioned by Spano and the ASO.
The tragedy of 9/11 is incorporated, but the abstract story unfolds as a romance born of antagonism between two powerful entities, through original characters devised by Talebi that have their origins in Persian philosophy and Zoroastrianism: Mana, the divine life force, and Ahsha, the idea of “truth and existence.” In Talebi’s tale, these epic beings find opportunity to connect in the midst of “collision,” whether taken in terms of wills or as allegory for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Rivera sang both roles in the original, but here the role of Ahsha was given to Australian operatic heldentenor Skelton. Otherwise, the libretto and the melodies have been retained, mostly intact, from the original. But Grey’s music has been greatly altered. The libretto is the work’s most prominent feature, with the vocal lines doing basic duty to support the texts, and the orchestral part likewise doing basic duty to support the vocal lines.
However well intended, the occasionally arcane texts are not necessarily universal in their public appeal. Given the memories of tragedy and loss of life in the 9/11 attacks, it felt to some degree like a disturbing faux pax to match up sentiments and allegories of the libretto with the honoring of first responders of any city, much less those who lost colleagues, friends or family on that fateful day.
At one point, a high-ranking police officer in front of me began to shake his head side to side at the texts projected above the stage. The officer and his companion did not come back after intermission, nor, conspicuously, did a number of others — and the audience at the beginning was already relatively sparse as it was.
The concert closed with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, dedicated to the memory of violist Ardeth Weck, who passed away earlier this week. She had been a member of the ASO for 46 years before retiring in 2012.
Rivera returned to the stage to sing the final movement, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”). The text is drawn from a collection of mostly German folk poems, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). The song is foreshadowed in the first three wholly instrumental movements in a variety of ways, driving the focus of the hour-long work toward the last movement, where the soprano sings a child’s vision of heaven and a great feast there, mostly sunny except for the slaughter of animals, including the sacrifice of a patient, innocent lamb.
For a singer, Mahler’s 4th requires a special ability to capture both vigor and childlike innocence with acute detail of word and phrase. Rivera’s delightfully entrancing performance, sympathetically underscored by Spano and the orchestra, left little wanting.