Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Richard Strauss and Beethoven led by ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles in his finale ASO appearance this season, with ASO principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione as featured soloist. The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall tonight (Friday) at 8:00 p.m. and again on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.
“Metamorphosen, Study for 23 Solo Strings” by Strauss opened the program. Scored for ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses, it was one of the composer’s final works. The piece was written during the final months of World War II as Hitler’s Nazi regime was being driven back and defeated by the Allies. Strauss never joined the Nazi Party, but he remained in Germany through the war. Completed in 1945, conductor Paul Sacher and the Collegium Musicum Zürich gave “Metamorphosen” its premiere in January 1946.
Strauss quotes the funeral march of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 near the end (explicitly in the bass part), accompanied by the words “in memoriam” in the score. There are multiple theories about why Strauss used the Beethoven quote and the cryptic “in memoriam” reference. Strauss himself wrote that he did not become aware of the relationship until he was nearly finished composing.
Except for a pair of timpani, the stage was refreshingly set with only those stands and chairs necessary for “Metamorphosen” itself. Of the 23 strings playing, the violinists and violists all stood while performing; only the cellists and contrabasses required seats. The piece displays Strauss’ consummate skill at complex counterpoint amid wide-ranging, shifting harmonies, and the performance by Runnicles and the ASO brought out all of the inner workings of the music with clarity and emotion. It was a moving, masterful performance, and after the musicians had begun to leave the stage, they were rightfully called back for another round of applause.
That would prove true of the next work on the program as well, Strauss’ Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, a work that was both inspired and completed in the same year as “Metamorphosen.” It has a strong World War II backstory as well. John de Lancie, who was principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony before enlisting in the U.S. Army, was a soldier in the unit that occupied the Bavarian town of Garmisch, where Strauss was living. That gave de Lancie the opportunity to ask Strauss if he had ever considered writing an oboe concerto. Strauss replied no. That was supposedly the end of it, but Strauss wrote his oboe concerto later that year. Though de Lancie did not premiere it, he took great satisfaction from the fact that he instigated the idea. And yes, for inquiring minds: he was the father of actor John de Lancie of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame.
The concerto is of a different demeanor than the “Metamorphosen.” It is a joyous and ebullient work, with the three movements played contiguously. It is also treacherously difficult, demanding top-flight technical skill and, especially, breath support of the soloist. In this instance, it was ASO principal oboist Tiscione, who has been one of the young stars of the orchestra since she was hired at the beginning of the 2007–2008 season at age 21 while still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Her musical relationship to Runnicles as conductor also extends to principal oboe of the summer Grand Teton Festival, where Runnicles is music director. Tiscione met all of the concerto’s challenges, technical and musical, in a splendid performance that was the cap of the evening.
The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, one of the fundamentals of the orchestral canon. In contrast to the Strauss works, Runnicles’ approach to Beethoven has much in common with his Brahms: leaner but robust, a common sense approach that propels the orchestra through the larger gestures of Beethoven’s score rather than polishing the door handles.
Runnicles and the orchestra achieved a performance that impelled as much by its visceral nature as anything. It was not at all the internal transparency found in the Strauss works, but was a muscular rendering that found the solar plexus.