Thursday’s subscription concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Dvorak, led by Italian guest conductor Carlo Montanaro and featuring French pianist Pascal Rogé in his ASO debut. The concert will be performed again tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Hall.
Montanaro is music director at Teatr Wielki in Warsaw. For the past dozen years, he has made his way conducting opera and concerts mostly in venues of Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe, plus a tour of Japan. He made his American conducting debut in 2007 with Opera Colorado, leading a production of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.”
All of last week, Montanaro was leading performances of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in Warsaw before flying to Atlanta to rehearse with the ASO. The flight was not without mishap: the airline lost Montanaro’s luggage, so he conducted his first rehearsal sans baton. The baggage and baton were found in time for the second rehearsal.
The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s festive “Capriccio italien,” written in 1880 for large orchestra and inspired by the experience of Carnival during a visit to Rome. The piece opened boldly with a fanfare based upon a military bugle call followed by a long, rubato melody in the strings. Colorful folksong sections ensued, including a return of the long rubato melody in their midst. To conclude, the piece dropped into a hushed final Presto tarantella that crescendoed to a fortississimo barn-burner ending.
Next, Rogé came onstage to play Saint-Saëns’ fifth and final piano concerto, known as “The Egyptian.” While Saint-Saëns composed it in Luxor, Egypt and it is somewhat of an ode to Northern Africa, the exotic music includes influences that are not only near-Eastern but also Spanish and even Javanese. Written in 1896, Saint-Saëns — himself quite a piano virtuoso — played the critically successful premiere in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his debut as performer at Salle Pleyel.
A native of Paris and the last student mentored by legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, the 62-year-old Rogé nailed an exclusive recording contract with Decca at the age of 17. Since then, he has earned a reputation as one of the great interpreters of French piano music, winning two Gramophone Awards, a Grand Prix du Disque and an Edison Award for albums of French music.
Rogé’s playing of Saint-Saëns concerto was elegant and ebullient, with phrasing that was insightful and communicative. Montanaro and the ASO were simpatico in the happy endeavor.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, familiarly known as “From the New World.” Despite that handle and oft-made references to the composer’s observations of African-American and Native American musics, the work has far more in common with Bohemian folk music than that of the United States. Nevertheless, along with works like the String Quartet No. 12, the symphony is representative of Dvořák’s experiences on this side of the pond.
The famous “Goin’ Home” tune in the second movement, rendered beautifully and lovingly in this performance by ASO English Horn player, Emily Brebach, is not an American folk tune, but was possibly influenced by the spirituals of Harry Burleigh, an African-American composer whom Dvořák encountered in New York.
Although Montanaro did not seem to bring any new and unique personal insights to Dvořák’s music, the performance was a well-delivered, assured kind that can’t go wrong with the audience. The whole evening was somewhat representative of that demeanor, with the colorful, mild exoticism of the delightful Saint-Saëns concerto as the top.
As has become practice this season, the photocopied extended program notes by Ken Meltzer are hiding, unmarked, behind the cough drop canisters. It appears that whomever is responsible for designing the program booklets still thinks large, looming graphic numerals “1,” “2” and “3” floating behind text like untethered balloons, are far more important than detailed program notes. Aside from the few stealth corner-stapled photocopies, Meltzer’s complete notes are available online for those of you who want to read them on the smart phone that you’re supposed to smartly turn off during the concert. Or you can even prepare your own computer-printed copies at home and bring them with you. Take your pick.