On Thursday in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed music by W.A. Mozart and James MacMillan, led by Music Director Robert Spano, with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as guest soloist. The concert will be performed again this (Saturday) evening and Sunday afternoon.
The program opened with Mozart’s Overture to “Die Zauberflöte.” In the context of the opera, it prepares the audience for fantasy and imagination. Spano used a moderately large string section, offering up a warmer sound, but still giving attention to details of phrase and gesture. The performance served well as a seven-minute curtain raiser that happily settled the audience into its seats.
Next, Thibaudet joined Spano and an enlarged orchestra to perform MacMillan’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra. Thibaudet premiered the concerto two years ago with the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, who commissioned the piece. In a nutshell, it comes across less like a piano concerto than a tone poem with a prominent piano part.
The structure of the concerto’s five parts was directly inspired by the Roman Catholic “Mysteries of the Rosary,” specifically Pope John Paul II’s new “Luminous Mysteries.” Hence the work’s subtitle, “The Mysteries of Light.” But it is not a liturgical piece in any traditional sense. The practice of writing instrumental music based on the stricture of the Rosary is centuries old. That MacMillan revived the idea for this concerto is perhaps as much due to a melding of modern and historical influences in his music as to his deep Catholic convictions. But if the devotional overlay poses the concerto as a work of serious religious piety, that does not necessarily come across in the music itself without the external prompting of program notes.
What does come across is music of unabashed complexity within which are occasional moments of unexpected simplicity and clarity. The 25-minute work is virtuosic for both pianist and orchestra, and Thibaudet’s agile-fingeredness fully embraced the demands of the piano part, which also benefited from his being a bit of a dramatist. Spano led the large orchestra, including a significant battery of percussion, in an equally demanding role.
The ASO’s percussion section plays a particularly critical role, sometimes doubling the piano part as if an extension of it. That is a challenge to pull off, due to the distance between the front of the stage and the back, but the percussionists nailed it, to great effect. The brass section also had a solid showing, with the clear bright trumpets and rich lower brass having the opportunity to play out. They demonstrated the right sense of group ensemble in flourishes, punctuated melodic statements and broad, noble, chorale-like passages. The woodwinds and strings played nimbly, even when obliged to execute a myriad of extended techniques. Whatever any given listener may think of MacMillan’s music itself, as far as the performers and their craft are concerned, it was a well-executed, if wild, Class 5 whitewater ride.
At the end, the audience seemed as divided as Congress. About one-third stood fairly quickly to applaud Thibaudet: those who came to hear him regardless of what he was playing. Others rose slowly in their wake, to add to accolades for Spano and the orchestra. But a significant minority of the audience decidedly did not stand; some near me quietly expressed to one another their dismay at MacMillan’s music. It is in many ways a perplexing piece, demanding much of a listener despite all its fulgurant orchestration and expressive immediacy. One might suggest that it calls for emotional multitasking — and we know how difficult that can be in everyday life, much less in a concert hall.
There was no encore. Some who had evidently come only to hear Thibaudet departed, but the rest emerged from the rabbit hole of MacMillan’s piece to hear music of great familiarity: Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major, nicknamed “Jupiter.” As in the Overture that kicked off the concert, Spano used a moderately large string section, resulting in a warmer sound, and gave good attention to detail and phrasing, with the tempo in the Menuetto riding on the front edge. The final Molto allegro movement brought the symphony to a satisfyingly energized close.
This time, the audience rose as a body to give accolades to Spano and the orchestra, with multiple ovations. Sometimes stories have happy endings. This was one of them.
Learn more about pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet here.