The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus returned to the stage of Symphony Hall Thursday night, after nine weeks of lockout. It performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, featuring ASO concertmaster David Coucheron as soloist, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, led by ASO music director Robert Spano.
The audience exploded wildly into a thunderous standing ovation for the musicians as the orchestra took the stage together, then kicked off the concert with “The Star Spangled Banner,” the long-standing tradition of opening-night performances. The capacity audience boldly joined in singing what seemed not only the National Anthem, but also a fervent statement by the people assembled in support of the ASO musicians and their return to Symphony Hall.
As Spano, Coucheron and the orchestra were about to begin the Mozart concerto, one man in the audience shouted, “Welcome back!,” which got some cheers and applause. Then a woman shouted, “We love you, Robert!,” at which point Spano, with a broad right arm gesture, blew a kiss to the audience.
Coucheron’s sound is not exceptionally large but is a sweetly focused one that suits Mozart’s concerto well. He was tasteful and introspective with the cadenzas, choosing to play those by Joseph Joachim, which had sufficient elements of velocity but left Coucheron much room for thoughtful playing. Spano and the small orchestra seemed to lag a tad behind Coucheron in the outer movements, though they were tighter in the central Adagio.
The main event of the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Sorry to say, what the audience got in this work was not what the ASO sounds like under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances. Although the collective bargaining agreement was successfully wrapped up in time for this concert, many of the ASO’s musicians are still committed to temporary engagements with orchestras elsewhere. It will take several weeks for the musicians on stage to become essentially regular members of the ASO roster.
Of the 71 musicians onstage for the Beethoven, 31 were contracted substitutes. Of those, only one had not previously played with the ASO (the sub principal oboe). Only two of the brass players, one French horn and one trombone, were regular ASO musicians.
The apparent musical consequence seemed to be a choice by Spano to take relatively slow tempos throughout, versus his normal pacing of the work. Perhaps that was a matter of trying to keep together an ensemble in which 44 percent of the players were substitutes and the remaining 40 were regular ASO musicians who had not played together in Symphony Hall for 19 weeks — 10 off-contract weeks, thanks to concessions given in the 2012 lockout, plus the nine weeks of this year’s lockout. That’s more than a third of a year.
Spano’s strategy, however, did not prevent the orchestra from sounding opaque and muddy, nor the momentum ponderous, and perhaps it even contributed to it. In many places where there should have been an incisive electrical excitement in the strings, we got worrisome muddledness. It was a somewhat credible Beethoven’s Ninth, but it was not the ASO — not what it should sound like.
Although the slower tempos imposed greater challenges for the chorus, they were up to it and were a principal saving grace, causing the final movement to ascend above the first three. The solo quartet was rather mixed. Baritone Stephen Powell’s stentorian invocation to sing was bold and on target. Nancy Maultsby’s mezzo-soprano had a dark urgency of tone that projected warmly. Joseph Kaiser’s tenor had a little edge in the upper reaches. Less satisfying was soprano Twyla Robinson, who has a generally nice vocal timbre were she able to maintain that throughout her range, but some of the high notes got away from her.
Given the context of the concert, a thoroughly warm and long response from the audience was warranted at the end, not so much for the performance itself but as a demonstration of genuine love for the orchestra and chorus. The restoration of the ASO’s sound will take weeks to heal as the missing roster musicians return and they play as a complete team of regulars again.
Although this was the season’s de facto opening night, which sold out completely, the ASO did not schedule a repeat concert for Friday night. The program will repeat tonight only, and that performance is also sold out. Perhaps the desire of Atlanta audiences to attend ASO concerts was grossly underestimated.
Boston composer, clarinetist and author Karl Henning contributed to this review.