On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Brahms concert in Symphony Hall, led by ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles with guest pianist Lars Vogt. This is the final week of the orchestra’s 2012-13 subscription season. The concert will be performed again Saturday evening.
It opened with Brahms’ “Tragic Overture.” From the very beginning, this bold and often turbulent piece showcased the best of both Runnicles and the orchestra. It was a full-bodied, robust interpretation; the orchestra sang under Runnicles’ baton with both good momentum and broad expressive gesture. As familiar as it is, the ASO had not played this piece in a subscription concert since 1999. But this Brahms really kicks for it. The orchestra should keep it in its back pocket for other, non-subscription uses.
Vogt then took the stage as soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. He has performed with the ASO twice before, first in 1998 in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 under Yoel Levi, ASO music director at the time, and then in 2005 in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with guest conductor Stephane Deneve.
Unfortunately, a mechanical mishap took place early in the first movement, which only part of the audience could see but everyone could clearly hear: Runnicles’ music desk collapsed. The large screw that holds it at proper height could not bear the weight of the Brahms score. So the desk and score dropped straight down, shortening the entire structure by a foot or so.
Thankfully, the otherwise stalwart assemblage did not tip over, so beyond the alarming percussive intrusion when it made its grand-plié, there were no more tragic consequences beyond Runnicles’ having to reach farther down to turn a page. All the performers continued without missing a beat; the music desk remained in its cowered position for the remainder of the concerto.
As for the performance itself, Vogt appeared to be musically at odds with Runnicles and the orchestra for most of the piece. Runnicles seemed to be the one on the right Brahmsian track, with Vogt a bundle of nervous energy, thrashing the momentum forward with an often brittle sound and occasional banging in the more forte passages. He did his best playing in certain softer passages where there was much rapid work to busy his fingers.
In more lyrical statements such as the famous solo piano passage beginning at bar 157, marked “Poco più moderato,” Vogt seemed musically impatient. He pushed it ahead, way too fast, as if he wanted to get to a place were there were more and faster notes. Thus the very tune that nearly everyone looks forward to in this concerto lacked the breadth of expressive singing quality that is signature Brahms.
It was pretty much ditto for the rest. Nevertheless, the audience quickly gave Vogt, Runnicles and the orchestra a standing ovation when the concerto ended. This is where critic and at least a few patrons, who expressed astonishment and dismay at Vogt’s rendering, begged to differ with the majority of the audience regarding the soloist, although regarding orchestra and conductor we concur.
After intermission, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which is typically as long as the piano concerto, concluded the concert. Some nervous energy from Vogt’s performance seemed to linger. The “Un poco sostenuto,” which opens the first movement, felt really fast, but the ensuing “Allegro” found its tempo groove. The symphony went well from there, progressing apace in the last movement to the glowing long notes of the brass-laden grand chorale, 51 bars from the end, from which the entire ensemble topped it all off with a fine, rousing conclusion.
With well over 100 minutes of music, this was a long concert. Interestingly, it was also the kind of concert that is perhaps the least likely to conclude a major orchestra’s season in the 21st-century marketing climate: no circus tricks, no smoke and mirrors, no clever, over-the-top hype. Instead, it was the kind of thing an orchestra does best: solid programming played with passion. It’s almost not so much an ending of a season as a sincere expectation of continuity, even after a long season that began in the throes of stress and turmoil.
That sincere feeling of expectation of continuity was echoed in voices in the hallways, as one could hear patrons and volunteer ushers — who clearly had developed friendships over the course of many concerts — say their goodbyes to one another: “I’ll see you again in the fall. Have a great summer.”
View additional photos from the performance here.