On Tuesday evening, the ATL Symphony Musicians presented their most recent concert at the spacious Dunwoody United Methodist Church. The small orchestra was led by Richard Prior, composer and director of orchestral studies at Emory University. They were joined by cellist Matt Haimovitz as featured guest soloist in the evening’s interesting mixed bag of orchestral, chamber and solo works.
The performance was one of several scheduled by the musicians since they were locked out by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management on September 7 after the two sides failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. The concert was attended by about 400 people, less than a full house.
Haimovitz opened the concert with a pair of unaccompanied cello works: the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 and “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” by David Sanford, the latter a remembrance commissioned by Haimovitz after the tragedies of 9/11. The emotionally harrowing work places the cellist near Ground Zero, in the guise of a saxophone-wielding street musician playing “as buildings collapse, debris blinds, dust suffocates” and yet continues to wail because he can do nothing else.
He was then joined by ASO principal percussionist Tom Sherwood for a deeply moving performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel” for cello and marimba, in which the composer “attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life.”
Three ASO cellists — principal Christopher Rex, Brad Ritchie and Dona Klein then joined Haimovitz for Sanford’s four-cello arrangement of “Blood Count” by jazz composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, his last finished composition for Duke Ellington before dying of esophageal cancer in 1967. This version captured well the bittersweet beauty of Ellington’s rendition, with solo part by Haimovitz echoing the spirit of saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who died only a few years after Strayhorn.
While Haimovitz took a break, the orchestra assembled and Prior conducted one of his own compositions, “elegy for aurora,” a poignant work written for the Aurora High School in Colorado in response to the tragic movie theater shooting that occurred in that city in 2012.
Aside from the Bach Prelude, the concert’s centerpiece, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C — which closed the concert — was the only respite from what seemed the program’s relentless themes of tragedy and death. With the Haydn work, Haimovitz and the orchestra succeeded in bringing the evening to an energized, sunny and, most importantly, hopeful close.
Haimovitz had already been scheduled to be an artist-in-residence at Emory University this week, but agreed to arrive a day early to perform with the ATL Symphony Musicians, a move that some warned him was a professional risk. Haimovitz provided the following statement to ArtsATL about his decision to play:
I have never before taken sides in a labor dispute, but my gut said, “Yes!” In tumultuous times we need music more then ever, for the musicians, for the community, for music’s sake.
Before confirming my participation, I polled some music industry folks whose expertise and opinion I respect. Nearly across the board I received stern warnings against participating in such a concert and “appearing to take sides” in the dispute. I was told “if you do this, you will never again be hired by a major symphony orchestra.” I have never made life or artistic decisions based on that, so the warnings sounded hollow to me.
I do not profess to have any knowledge of the orchestra’s budget or deficit. Clearly there are issues to work out with the model. Will any symphony orchestra look the same 20 years from now? I doubt it, and I hope not. But I am a musician who is concerned about the priority and state of culture in our society today. If that debate were taking place, in good faith, with the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony, I would not have played. But it is not, and the decision to join them and make music was an easy one.
Haimovitz will premiere Prior’s Concerto this Saturday with the composer conducting the Emory University Symphony Orchestra in a free concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Just so there is no public confusion: that concert is unrelated to the ATL Symphony Musicians, who will themselves present a chamber music concert on Friday, the night before, in Kellett Chapel at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.