The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Thursday performed a concert of music by Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Luciano Berio and Gioachino Rossini in Symphony Hall, led by guest conductor Roberto Abbado and featuring concertmaster David Coucheron as violin soloist.
The concert opened with Schubert’s Overture to “Die Zauberharfe,” a piece that was long associated with the play “Rosamunde” by Helmina von Chézy, though there is disagreement among historians as to whether any real relationship to that play exists. Abbado and the orchestra gave it a broad, romantically weighted reading.
Next, concertmaster Coucheron came onstage, wearing a special tailor-made shirt of his own design, to perform as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 6, one of the great violin concertos of all time and the composer’s last large orchestral work. It is a buoyant, youthful and beautifully melodic half-hour piece that wonderfully exploits the lyrical and virtuosic qualities of the violin, demanding from a performer respect for its intrinsic qualities and honesty in execution.
These suited Coucheron’s sweetly lyrical tendencies, his capacity for virtuosic velocity and musical temperament. In the short time he has been in Atlanta, Coucheron has developed a solid and devoted following among the audience and the admiration of colleagues on the stage.
His parents had flown in from Norway to be present at Thursday’s concert, as they were for his solo debut with the ASO in early 2011, not many months after he had become, at age 26, the youngest concertmaster of a major American orchestra.
The Mendelssohn concerto has a special place in the family’s storybook. When Coucheron was five years old, his father, who is not a violinist, dreamed that he played the Mendelssohn concerto. When his father told him of the dream, the young Courcheron promised to play it with an orchestra someday. Coucheron told the story to the audience, then performed Paganini’s unaccompanied Caprice No. 7 in A minor as an encore, wowing the well-primed audience with his rendition.
Schubert completed nine symphonies in the course of his brief life, and he made keyboard sketches for a prospective 10th in the weeks before his death. Italian composer and conductor Luciano Berio based his 1990 composition “Rendering,” which the orchestra played Thursday, upon those sketches. He was not trying to “complete” the work in a conjectural manner (as Brian Newbould had done), but letting the extant elements stand as they were, albeit orchestrated, and adding imaginative musical connective tissue in the unwritten “gaps.”
Berio described it as like restoring a fresco, where the colors are restored to their original brilliance but the cracks and gaps between the surviving pieces are filled but not “completed” in speculation of what Schubert might have done. There were moments that were presumptively like Schubert, others that were clearly not and some that Berio successfully managed to make ambiguous in that respect. The use of a celesta, played by keyboardist Peter Marshall, had a prominent role in watermarking Berio’s original dreamlike passages in this fascinating imaginorium. Conductor Abbado also seemed at his very best in this piece.
The concert concluded with Rossini’s Overture to “Guillaume Tell” (“William Tell”). Because of its extensive associations in popular culture, it was especially interesting to hear this piece following Berio’s work. How our minds assimilate and react to a work that has been strongly impacted through the filtration of popular culture is not entirely unrelated to Berio’s musical journey of the mind within the negative spaces of “Rendering” or the superimpositions upon the Scherzo of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a much earlier work by Berio, “Sinfonia.”
The Overture is in four sections without pause, opening with an extensive, pensive solo cello melody, played in this instance by ASO principal cellist Christopher Rex, accompanied by four more solo cellos from the section, with the remainder of the cellos and contrabasses joining in soon to underscore them all, plus a few modest timpani rolls that foreshadow the coming “Storm” segment. That Andante opening, titled “Dawn,” of 44 bars is the least familiar to the general public.
Hollywood animators appropriated the next two sections, “Storm” and “Pastorale,” as audio symbols for the dangerous and the docile in nature, especially the latter with its tuneful duet between English horn and flute, played by Emily Brebach and Christina Smith respectively. Several generations of Americans, of course, cannot hear the concluding galop without imagining a black mask, a white hat and actor Clayton Moore’s “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” due to its use in the radio and television series “The Lone Ranger.” This gave the audience a rousing “big bang” ending, for which it stood and loudly voiced its approval.
The final two concerts of this program will take place tonight (Saturday) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in Symphony Hall.