ArtsATL > Music > ASO review: Rare Britten, warhorse Beethoven from Donald Runnicles, violinist James Ehnes

ASO review: Rare Britten, warhorse Beethoven from Donald Runnicles, violinist James Ehnes


ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles with Canadian violinist James Ehnes.

Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert featured Canadian violinist James Ehnes, appearing here for the second time. His chosen work, Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, seems a rather brave choice. Probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of the audience, it is demanding without the opportunities for flamboyant display that abound elsewhere in the repertoire. Perhaps this suits Ehnes. He comes across as a bit low key. Hey, he’s Canadian! But he brings along a solid technique and impressive musicality.

He plays with a dark, rich tone and easily navigates the switches from the gentlest pizzicato to fortissimo attacks. He is equally at home with the sweet singing lines of the melodious passage as with the Gypsy-like interludes. As for the concerto itself, it seems a mixed bag. There are occasional stretches that seem a bit mundane, but much of the work has a truly original sound, pitting the soloist, playing in Romantic style, against a modernist counterpoint from the orchestra.

The Britten piece isn’t really “Britten-esque.” In the final movement, though, some trademark chords arrive, as if the composer decided that the piece needed a signature. This was a nice introduction to a neglected work by one of the great masters of the 20th century, and it helps to hear it played so impeccably. Donald Runnicles, who conducted, seemed content to give Ehnes free rein without subduing his orchestra.

Encores apparently are scheduled in advance at the ASO these days, and they seem to be getting rarer. Perhaps this is a reaction to the uniformity of the audience reaction, standing ovations having become a ritual rather than an honor. For whatever reason, this talented performer didn’t get one (an encore, that is). That’s unfortunate. He seemed to have earned a bit of extra stage time by bringing us something new and rare, and by playing with such finesse. Those extra minutes are often the best part of an entire evening.

The performance was marred by the jarring melody of a cell phone during one of the more delicate passages. Because the offending patron was seated near the front, right under the noses of Ehnes and Runnicles, it was surprising that they were able to maintain their concentration. A very similar incident occurred a few weeks ago at a New York Philharmonic concert, where Alan Gilbert, the conductor, was so distracted that he had to stop the performance until the phone was turned off. Here, somehow, Ehnes and Runnicles soldiered on.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, a.k.a. the “Eroica,” seems to be appearing almost every season at the ASO (this is the third time in four years). Some might question the need to revisit popular warhorses at this pace when there are important gaps in the orchestra’s repertoire, but it’s hard to question the importance of the “Eroica,” or its power. It also serves to deliver an audience when less popular works are programmed, and it was no coincidence that the Britten was placed first, to prevent flight into the night at intermission.

At least this performance of the “Eroica” was an opportunity to contrast the approaches of ASO Music Director Robert Spano, who conducted it in 2008, and that of Runnicles. It gives a window into the value brought by Runnicles, whose contract as principal guest conductor has just been renewed.

For one thing, Runnicles gets a very different sound from the orchestra. Balance is very important to him. There were times in the “Eroica” when you could feel him subduing the brass just a bit, whereas Spano, going for dramatic punch, would do the opposite. Runnicles’ pacing is quite brisk and his textures are light, both characteristics of the period instruments movement, whereas Spano takes a more Romantic approach.

The most interesting feature of the Runnicles sound is an emphasis on the lower strings. His placement of basses and cellos on the audience’s left, reversing the usual ASO plan, makes this more noticeable. Because the sound is in a different ear, it is, in fact, hard to determine how much is actually a change in the sound itself and how much is just the effect of this repositioning on the brain.

In any case, with this “Eroica,” we got a performance with less sturm und drang than we’d get from Spano. Runnicles’ “Funeral March” didn’t pack the same punch. But this more subdued reading might be the one for the more cerebral listener. The fleet tempi elsewhere and the dark string texture made Runnicles’ “Funeral March” sadder and more personal, but also, because of his strong emphasis on the beat, more of a march.

The briskness of his approach was most daring in the final movement, as it rushed toward the final coda. If the performance lacked the shattering impact of a Spano reading, it was nevertheless more introspective. Having listened to the two very different interpretations, it’s easier to understand the value brought by a regular guest conductor: we get to have it both ways. “Eroica” is a great vehicle for showing off the orchestra, and on this occasion the brasses and woodwinds were impeccable.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Next week, Runnicles will return with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.

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