Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Elgar, Wagner, Ravel and Stravinsky, with ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, in his season premiere, and music director Robert Spano both sharing the podium as conductors and performing together as duo pianists. The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday as a matinee performance at 2 p.m.
This week’s concerts are dedicated to the memory of ASO contrabassist Douglas Sommer, who passed away February 27 after a battle against cancer. Sommer was a member of the orchestra for 25 years. ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein opened the concert with a spoken eulogy, which was followed by Runnicles leading the orchestra in a performance of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” a selection often played in memorials in Great Britain. This performance was particularly stunning in both polish and emotional depth, certainly transcending the ASO’s rendering on February 6 — understandably so, given the context, but also Runnicles was the better helmsman.
The orchestral version of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde came next. Though originally scheduled to open the concert, it followed the Elgar quite organically, with Runnicles likewise on his home turf with the surging emotion of the operatic extract sans soprano. He led performances of the entire five-hour-long opera last March with Deutsche Oper Berlin, where he is general music director.
Ravel’s “La Valse” was performed twice. First by Spano and Runnicles in a transcription for two pianos, then the full orchestral original led by Runnicles. The contrast was like viewing a fine photograph or film in black and white then comparing with the same in color. Neither is necessarily less substantive than the other, though how details are revealed to the listener differ significantly.
Ravel himself wrote of the piece: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.” Essentially, Ravel takes hold of the Viennese waltz genre and lets it spin out of control with a certain kind of French joie de vivre.
Though conceived as a ballet, “La Valse” is more often heard in orchestra concerts than staged with dance. The two-piano version is Ravel’s own and is technically challenging, but was a sparkling, joyous romp for Runnicles and Spano on the keyboards. The orchestral version, led by Runnicles, enhanced those characteristics in Technicolor.
The duo’s piano foray into Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” after intermission was less effective, even though played well. Spano and Runnicles only performed two excerpts from Part I, which made it all come across more like a lecture demonstration, with that unfortunate feeling compounded by all the extra talk before the music was played. To some extent, that nominal selection was a consequence of simple limitations on overall concert length. There is only so much on can put on the plate for one evening. But it would not have harmed the experience had only the Ravel been put forth as piano duo, as engaging as Stravinsky’s transcription could likely be in toto.
Then came the orchestral version, this time with Spano conducting. If the music’s reputation is as much “riot” as much as a “rite,” then in this performance it was a riot that was well under control. Frankly speaking, it is likely Stravinsky would have approved of Spano’s approach, which was Modernist in every real and good sense of the word. That hardly prevented the performance from being incredibly visceral.
That might disappoint those who see its calculated primitivism as “abandon.” But it is more a monument of carefully crafted, complex rhythmic sophistication that was revolutionary for 1913. Just over a century later, “The Rite of Spring” endured as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.