Thursday evening’s concert at Symphony Hall by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Britten and Berlioz, led by ASO Music Director Robert Spano with pianist Wu Han as guest soloist. The concert was repeated Friday night on the road at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center. That concert, which marked the first time the orchestra had ever performed at KSU, was completely sold out. Two subsequent performances will take place again at Symphony Hall on Saturday evening at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 2.
Although unusually cold, Atlanta’s weather this week was clear. Not so New York City, where scheduled pianist Wu Han resides, delaying her departure from the Big Apple enough that she arrived after Wednesday’s ASO rehearsal. That left only Thursday’s dress rehearsal with Spano and the orchestra to prepare Britten’s Piano Concerto, which opened the concert.
Britten composed the four-movement concerto in 1938 and revised it in 1945; it totals about 33 minutes in length. It’s a brilliant work. Like his Violin Concerto, it’s one of those works that, if you’ve never heard it before, it strikes you as something that should have always been on your radar but somehow previously escaped your notice. This was the ASO’s first time performing it.
While the unfamiliarity and pressing rehearsal conditions may have been responsible for a little less tightness than one would want to expect between the assembled onstage, the audience was nonetheless treated to a vibrant performance of the splendid, mostly bravura concerto. Wu Han, who shares with her husband, cellist David Finckel, the honor of being named named Musical America’s 2012 Musicians of the Year, performed with her iPad resting on the piano — her music displayed as an e-document rather than a paper score.
After intermission, Spano and the orchestra had a performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” that was no less than awesome — the ASO at its best. The five movements of this mainstay of Romantic orchestral repertoire are about as programmatic as one could ever expect. The composer himself, in his own notes describing the work, wrote what might have served as well for some ’60s psychedelic rock music:
“A young musician of morbidly sensitive temperament and lively imagination poisons himself with opium in an attack of lovesick despair. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a deep slumber accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his feelings, his emotions, his memories are transformed n his sick mind to musical images. The Beloved herself becomes for him a melody, a cyclical theme (idée fixe) that he encounters and hears everywhere.”
The final movement, entitled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” featured the debut of the newest percussion instrument in the ASO’s growing collection: a pair of large church bells acquired specifically for this work and in memoriam to the late Eugene Rehm, who was an ASO percussionist for 49 years before his retirement in 2003.
The enormous church bells, cast in the Netherlands by Petit & Fritsen, are notable in that they are tuned to C and G in the octave that Berlioz specified. In previous performances, the most recent in 2010, the ASO had borrowed a pair of bells from the Dallas Symphony that were smaller and tuned an octave higher so they would be easier to transport.
The sound of these bells is impressive. The estate left by Rehm at his passing made possible the purchase of the bells and other percussion equipment for the orchestra. Backstage after the concert, members of the orchestra gathered privately to raise a toast to Rehm with his favorite beer, Miller Lite, with which the bells were also fittingly “christened.”