Thursday evening’s concert at Symphony Hall by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, led by ASO music director Robert Spano with guest cello soloist Lynn Harrell. The concert will be reprised tonight at Symphony Hall at 8 p.m., then the orchestra will take a regional road trip to perform the same program on Saturday at the Savannah Music Festival at 8 p.m. in the Lucas Theatre.
Since his previous ASO podium appearance, in February, Spano has been busy guest conducting, first with the Philadelphia Orchestra at their home venue, the Kimmel Center, in a three-concert stint that included both Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” and her Violin Concerto, with violinist Benjamin Beilman.
Then last week, Spano concluded a six-city tour with the Curtis Chamber Orchestra, in which violist Roberto Díaz, president of the Curtis Institute, was soloist in the premiere of a new viola concerto by Higdon. Spano’s own “Hölderlin-Lieder” was also performed in the tour, along with works by Prokofiev and Mozart.
Spano’s welcomed return to his home podium opened with the Cello Concerto of Antonin Dvořák, long considered the pinnacle of repertoire for cello and orchestra, in this instance performed by no less than the esteemed American cellist Lynn Harrell.
Born in 1944 in New York to professional musician parents, Harrell made up his mind by age eight that he was going to to play cello. He began his musical studies with Lev Aronson in Dallas at age 12, then with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School and Orlando Cole at the Curtis Institute. He was soon a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and its principal cellist from 1964 to 1971, when he made his New York recital debut and his solo career took off.
The truth is that musicians are at their very best when they have completely internalized the music over the course of a lifetime and it sounds absolutely spontaneous, as if given birth right there of stage when they play it. Such was the case with Harrell’s fully engaged performance of the Dvořák concerto on Thursday. So immersed was he, one could see Harrell mouthing orchestra parts when he was not himself playing, and when he was playing Harrell, cello and the music were as one.
Between movements, he and Spano grinned and exchanged a few friendly words. They, and the orchestra, seemed both at ease and fully vested in the performance. Harrell’s sound carried well, and Spano and the orchestra’s playing did not feel like they were having to put a cork in it for Harrell to be heard.
It is worth saying here something about Harrell’s current cello, which is only seven years old.
Previously, he has played a 1720 Domenico Montagnana cello and also a 1673 Antonio Stradivarius cello, which had belonged to the late Jacqueline du Pré. His current instrument was made in 2008 by American luthier Christopher Dungey. Dungey, himself a contrabass player, has specialized in cellos as a luthier and is a pioneer in the notion of following up on his instruments and their setups as they begin to mature. Harrell’s performance was an excellent testament to the craft of his cello’s maker.
Harrell came back for an encore, announcing that he wanted to play something in great contrast to the Dvořák concerto, and performed a Gavotte transcribed for cello from the Violin Sonata No. 10 of Giuseppi Valentini, which was popularized among cellists by the late Pablo Casals.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 followed intermission. It’s considered one of the essential works among late 19th-century orchestral repertoire, and one of the more frequently performed. The last time the ASO performed it during a subscription concert was only two-and-a-half years ago, in the emotional opening concert of the ASO’s 2012-13 season.
Unlike that concert, the opening movement felt uncertain in certain passages, the impression being that sections of the orchestra were at times not really on the same pulse with each other. That problem seemed fully resolved once the Andantino, with its opening oboe solo, began.
The setting section’s pizzicato ostinato of the Scherzo felt fully unified, that mostly whimsical movement offering some lightness to the work’s overall heavy tone. The Finale restored a more serious tone, its forceful final section bringing the work to a thunderous close.