Locked-out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under the moniker “ATL Symphony Musicians,” performed a pair of back-to-back free concerts of music by Beethoven and Dvořák in the Bailey Performance Center’s 620-seat Morgan Hall at Kennesaw State University Friday night.
The musicians engaged Michael Palmer to conduct, just as they had for two performances during the relatively brief lockout of 2012. Palmer was selected by Robert Shaw to be assistant, then associate, conductor of the ASO in 1967, as the orchestra was first working toward becoming a full-time professional orchestra. Palmer was with the ASO for 10 years, then became music director of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. Palmer returned to Atlanta in 2004 to teach at Georgia State University, where he is the Charles Thomas Wurm Distinguished Professor of Orchestral Studies. More prominently, for over 20 years Palmer has been the artistic director of the Bellingham Festival of Music.
ArtsATL attended the first performance at 7 p.m. The capacity audience stood and rendered thunderous applause for the musicians as they came onstage. The concert opened with Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture. The symbolism was hardly lost on those who know Goethe’s play of the same name, for which Beethoven wrote the music.
The play is a political manifesto of justice and liberty, the fight of Dutch noble Count Egmont against the despotic Duke of Alba of the Spanish Empire. Egmont refuses to flee arrest and imprisonment, accepting the consequences of his stand for liberty. Goethe portrays his execution as a victory in the fight against oppression. It was indeed the execution of the historical Lamoral, Count of Egmont, which helped incite a national uprising that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands.
In his remarks to the audience in advance of the piece, Palmer praised the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for its development into a world-class ensemble. He suggested that if anyone were to want to be standing alongside the musicians in this concert, it would be Beethoven himself, as a composer who rejected control of the aristocracy of his day. “And this is what he had to say,” Palmer said with a dramatic flourish before he turned to the orchestra and gave them the downbeat for the overture’s opening unison F-natural, boldly played by the entire orchestra.
The total energy in the performance is hard to describe. Morgan Hall itself contributed to the brightness and sheer volume of sound. It was the kind of force that hits you in the solar plexus rather than washing over the audience. The orchestra delivered a sharply stenciled performance that left no room for superfluous sentiment.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 represents the composer at his best. The 9th may be more popular, but No. 7 is more musically ambitious, arguably his greatest, and more deliberately cosmopolitan in style than his previous symphonies. Like Beethoven’s “Egmont,” Dvořák’s 7th nevertheless has within it a message of tenacious resistance to political oppression, according to the composer himself.
Palmer and the orchestra switched gears to a more rounded, embracing rendering appropriate to the work’s late romantic style. Though not everything about the performance was razor-sharp, the heart of the music overwhelmingly carried the day. Special kudos belong to principal horn Brice Andrus and the entire horn section in both works.
The second performance at 9 p.m. drew a capacity-plus crowd; extra chairs for overflow audience were placed behind the orchestra, and yet some late arriving fans had to be turned away, as there was no more room. The musicians clearly have a tribe of loyal fans.
Like the last Monday’s capacity-audience event at Terminal West, Friday’s pair of concerts was also streamed live. In this instance, it was via KSU’s website and in-house technical capabilities, using a five-camera setup. Friday’s video stream obtained over 800 viewing sessions, according KSU’s website analytics. The vast majority of viewers were located in the United States, some as far away as Seattle, with a smattering of international viewers, mostly in Canada and the United Kingdom.
The next scheduled concerts by the ATL Symphony Musicians will be Friday, October 17 at Peachtree Presbyterian Church’s Kellett Chapel and a chamber music marathon on November 23 at Eddie’s Attic. Rumor is that there is possibility of additional concerts in October. ArtsATL will keep an eye on whether any such plans materialize.