The ability to evoke huge emotions and colossal drama without delving into maudlin sentimentality or overwrought pathos is certainly one of the rarest and most precious skills in making art. But that precise skill was on display throughout the Thursday evening performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra of works by Mendelssohn, Nielsen and, most challengingly in this particular arena, Tchaikovsky.
The ASO, under the baton of guest conductor Thierry Fischer (a last-minute substitute for the planned guest conductor Marc Piollet, who was unable to travel) navigated the territory masterfully. The center of the evening — which repeats tonight and Saturday evening — was a performance by famed violinist Hilary Hahn of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. Nielsen’s Concerto is not one of the popular old warhorses of the violin repertoire, but its many strengths — including its appealing melodic lines, its beautifully paced revelations of the instrument’s many moods and its playful explorations of the potential for change in the balance between soloist and orchestra — have earned it an increasing popularity in recent years, and it’s been programmed more and more often.
Concertgoers still somewhat wary of the early 20th-century Danish composer likely had any fears allayed by Hahn’s approach. There was a delicious variety in the instrument’s tones, all of them unfailingly lovely, coupled with a mature understanding of the composer’s style, but also a daringness in letting phrases and moods be shaped by individual artistic rendering. It was an intent made clear from the opening notes: even the quick tempos of the opening runs had a brooding sort of interiority and stillness. All in all, a lovely match of composer to soloist and a special treat because the nuanced, likeable piece isn’t programmed often.
For her encore Hahn played the appealing “Loure” from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, a piece that again allowed her to show off her beautiful tone but also let her display some of her incisive and intelligent approach to emotion. As in the Nielsen, Hahn evoked a crystalline stillness and beauty. The tempo was slow but never seemed leaden or misused; it was a measured journey through a precisely limned emotional landscape.
Speaking of fantastic encores by Hahn, Atlanta composer and ArtsATL’s classical music writer Mark Gresham was named among 10 artists to receive an honorable mention in the “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores” composition contest of 2012. Hahn will premiere works by the honorable mentions, including Gresham’s piece entitled “Café Cortadito,” as concert encores before December 2015.
Hahn’s performance was preceded by the brief but dramatic Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn. Its intense and rolling melodies were meant to conjure up the awe Mendelssohn felt when confronted with the landscapes of Scotland, particularly the marvel of Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. Fischer pulled out the details — the clear articulation and orchestral textures — that create the swift and overarching romantic sweep of the piece. When delving into drama that can veer dangerously close to sentimentality, Tchaikovsky is undoubtedly the danger zone. But Fischer brought out that piece’s many images. Especially gorgeous were the achingly mournful tones of the opening of the second movement, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some whimsical, deliciously plump, almost ribald pizzicato notes in the third movement.
The concert was played in memory of ASO bassist Douglas Sommer, who passed away earlier that morning after a courageous battle with cancer. The staff and writers of ArtsATL join the members of the symphony in mourning his loss and honoring his 25 years of artistry with the ASO.