ArtsATL > Music > ASO review: Two new works, Ohlsson playing Rachmaninoff bring down the house

ASO review: Two new works, Ohlsson playing Rachmaninoff bring down the house

Robert Spano (left) with composer
Robert Spano (left) with composer Adam Schoenberg.
Conductor Robert Spano (left) with “Atlanta School” composer Adam Schoenberg.

On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Robert Spano, performed a pair of 21st-century American works by Richard Prior and Adam Schoenberg and, with guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson as soloist, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2. The concert will be performed again tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 in Symphony Hall.

The world premiere of Prior’s “… of shadow and light … (incantations for orchestra),” commissioned by the ASO, opened the concert. The 15-minute work, with secure but colorful orchestration and well played by Spano and the orchestra, got an enthusiastic reception from the audience.

The “American Symphony” by the young Schoenberg, the youngest among Spano’s signature “Atlanta School” of composers, was completed in 2011 and premiered that March by the Kansas City Symphony. It was inspired by both the composer’s hopeful feelings following the 2008 presidential election and his first encounter, three days later, with Aaron Copland’s quintessentially American Symphony No. 3, written in 1946 just after the end of World War II

The cheerfully optimistic Schoenberg writes, in notes on his website, of how “seeing that our country and world had needs similar to those of Copland’s time, I was inspired to make a difference. I set out to write a modern American symphony that paid homage to our past and looked forward to a brighter future.”

In five movements over the course of its 24 minutes, Schoenberg does touch on a lot of what has been in tbe public collective mind as a kind of “American” symphonic sound, with underlying rhythms in the faster odd-numbered movements hinting slightly at both Copland’s mid-career “Americana” style and at those of some gentler popular music of the latter 20th century. The remaining slow movements, in contrast, were more introspective.

Schoenberg’s orchestration was more open and riskier than Prior’s. Although there were a couple of minor shaky moments in the piece for the orchestra, particularly in one place near the end, it was received well by the audience.

Neither of the works in the concert’s first half posed any crusty aesthetic challenges to the sizable audience.

Once again, especially given the presence of two new works in the concert, it is sad that extended program notes were absent — although one must acknowledge that the lead time for preparing a monthly program booklet is long, not allowing changes in a New York minute. But these shortcomings need to be addressed squarely by the ASO.

Talking (or writing) about music is really not like dancing about architecture. Likewise for the other arts. Our verbal discourse about the arts is vitally meaningful to the well-being of the cultural environment. While we don’t need knotty annotations that are like some form of “musical humiliation therapy,” Ken Meltzer’s extended notes are not like that. They are communicative and quite easily read. And it is not a “middle ground,” even in this age of Twitter, when discourse about music is reduced to simplistic servings of shredded tweet.

There is little one can imagine as more of a foolproof winning combination than Ohlsson playing Rachmaninoff. In 1970, Ohlsson became the first American to win first prize in the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition, having previously won first prizes in the Busoni and Montreal piano competitions in 1966 and 1968 respectively. Ever since, he remained a leading American pianist.

His performance Thursday night demonstrated that the 65-year-old Ohlsson is still at the top of his game, no less than awesome. Spano and the ASO were fully in league as his collaborative partner. Ohlsson, Spano and the orchestra received cheers and thunderous applause in a lengthy ovation, with the lion’s share of the attention on Ohlsson as soloist, who came back onstage to play Rachmaninoff’s familiar Prelude in C-sharp minor as an encore.

(This version corrects an earlier version of the review, which stated in error that Ohlsson performed with the ASO’s new Steinway piano. He did not. ASO keyboardist Peter Marshall, however, did debut the new Steinway in the ensemble  for the first half of the concert.)

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