ArtsATL > Music > Review: Guest conductor Peter Oundjian and the ASO embark on a stirring musical “Fantasia”

Review: Guest conductor Peter Oundjian and the ASO embark on a stirring musical “Fantasia”

Thursday's program marked Oundjian's ASO debut.
Peter Oundjian
A repetitive stress injury took Oundjian from musician to conductor.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed its first subscription concert of 2014 at Symphony Hall on Thursday evening. The concert featured music by Vaughan Williams, Mozart and Dvořák, led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian in his ASO debut, with pianist Louis Lortie as soloist. The concert will be performed again on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Hall.

The “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Vaughan Williams, composed in 1910, opened the show. Vaughan Williams had been the music editor for The English Hymnal of 1906, an extensive repository of some of the world’s greatest and worst tunes. From that experience, he chose a tune Thomas Tallis had written for the Psalter of 1567, given the number 92 in The English Hymnal.

Written for strings only, the fantasia’s forces are divided into two orchestras, a large one and a small one, that are separated on the stage. The smaller group, a nonet, was positioned at the back of the stage on a low platform, with the large string orchestra up front. Out of the latter, the music also employed a third group, a quartet of principal section chairs, with some extended solos and duos played ably by principal violist Reid Harris and concertmaster David Coucheron.

Oundjian drew a passionate performance from the string orchestras. No surprise: Oundjian began his career as a prize-winning violinist and was first violinist of the esteemed Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years, but a repetitive stress injury forced him to shift his full focus to conducting. His affinity for the strings shows in his conducting. Of the three works on the program, Oundjian truly owned the “Fantasia.”

Just as Vaughan Williams’ music might have been recognized by the audience as having been used in several film scores, including Peter Weir’s 2003 epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, likewise the second movement of the next piece up, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, surely first reached some ears through the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan.

That was the case for a gentleman seated behind me, who excitedly remarked during intermission that he knew that tune, though he didn’t recall which film, and now he knows from whence it came. He then mentioned his connecting of Brahm’s Symphony No. 3 with the film Goodbye Again (1961), thanks to the ASO’s season-opening concert. Once again, evidence that classical music is relevant to contemporary culture if it is simply used, played and heard.

Lortie, who is no stranger to Atlanta audiences, joined Oundjian and the ASO as soloist for the Mozart concerto. There was clarity, natural but detailed phrasing, and a delight in “serious fun” in this performance, with Lortie and Oundjian, both Canadians of similar age, on essentially the same wavelength in their musical interactions with each other and the orchestra.

After intermission, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 received a lean and taut but emotive performance under Oundjian’s baton. At the end, a well-deserved ovation for the orchestra, with Oundjian acknowledging principal clarinetist Laura Ardan then all principal woodwinds together, principal horn Brice Andrus and then the entire horn section.

All in all, a very solid and satisfying performance for an essentially packed hall. It’s unfortunate that this was only a two-concert week for ASO. Including a Friday night concert could have been a worthwhile effort.

This review ends with another happy note: as of this concert, the program notes have been essentially restored to the booklet. Not as long as in the past, but quite sufficient: around 1,500 words total per concert (about twice the length of this review). Essentially, they are now on a par with the length of booklet notes at Carnegie Hall.

Most telling, from my seat in the ground floor 12th row, was the significant number of people in their seats before the concerts who were reading the program notes for this concert, evidenced by what was most clearly seen at a distance: the unfortunate “landlady green” background color of the pages in question (pages 22 through 25). The observation that these pages were being read, not flipped through, is evidence that restoration of in-depth notes was the right thing to do. More can be done. Indeed, there seems real hope for the booklet’s future versus “the recent unpleasantness” it endured this past fall when the notes vanished.

Good tidings all around for a happy new year.

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