Strange, unexpected happenings in Symphony Hall. A conductor cancels, an unknown, middle-aged violinist proves himself a major international talent, and a routine program turns electrifying.
First the maestros. Nicola Luisotti, music director of the San Francisco Opera, was scheduled to conduct this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concerts. His return was keenly anticipated as the orchestra hopes to strengthen ties and bring him here regularly. (Several musicians have mentioned him as a candidate worthy to become the ASO’s next principal guest conductor, when that gig opens up in another year or two.)
But Luisotti broke his ankle recently and decided to stay home in Italy. A few days ago, the ASO announced his replacement: Arild Remmereit, a blond mop-top conductor from Norway who is set to take charge of the Rochester Philharmonic, a respected ensemble known for spotting conducting talent early. Remmereit had been here before. In reviewing his ASO debut, in 2007, I wrote that ”the playing was clean but blah — loudish, hazy and lacking character.”
He’s grown noticeably in four years. Like many infrequent guests in our acoustically troubled Symphony Hall, on Thursday he let the orchestra blare unchecked from the get-go. The opening blasting brass Es of Verdi’s “La forza del destino” Overture were properly startling and punchy. The quiet parts were at best mezzo forte, however, and the whole thing seemed to shout. Power and brawn substituted for heat and intensity, although it did not lack character.
Fortunately, the Verdi came off as a warm-up exercise. After intermission, Remmereit led a vigorous, mature reading of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. And the orchestra responded to their guest with crisp articulation and a heightened sense of purpose. (In truth, the ASO has been playing with a newfound ability to communicate, a certain relaxed intensity, since the start of the season.) Several section principals offered exquisite solo bits, above all the brief, foreboding duets from oboist Elizabeth Koch and cellist Christopher Rex. The conductor found convincing balances (in this famously hard-to-balance work) and a compelling inner logic. In the years since his ASO debut, he has concentrated his skills and kicked himself up to a higher tier of artist. It will be satisfying to follow his career going forward.
But the concert’s most memorable participant, no question, was violinist Sergej Krylov (at left), born in 1970 in Moscow. In Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, his rich, throbbing, dark amber tone and commanding, ironclad interpretation had everyone on seat’s edge, both on stage and in the auditorium. It was a little intimidating, and small idiosyncratic touches — a quick bowing flourish here, a zippy run there — seemed almost out of place. You mean this graceful bulldog, this fighter of the fiddle, has a playful side, too? This suggests an uncommonly complete personality. His program bio and website indicate a career still in formation, with just a few top ensembles on the list. A cursory late-night Google search uncovered no U.S. performances. Was this really his American debut?
After a particularly muscular opening movement in the Tchaikovsky, Krylov did not use the operatically lyrical middle movement to display a tender side. Rather, he remained steely and unsentimental, what we might call “Soviet” in style, more Kogan than Oistrakh. Conductor and orchestra were fully on board with him, playing tautly, with bite, and tremendous forward propulsion in the finale.
As a rule, Atlanta audiences give standing ovations based more on the work — if it’s popular and ends with a bang — than on the quality of the performance, so the robust cheers and applause were not extraordinary. But this is the first time I’ve seen the jaded ASO musicians all but ready to leap to their feet, so ardent was their own applause. Krylov returned to take several bows, and then returned with an encore: a solo violin arrangement of the familiar Toccata and Fugue, originally for pipe organ, sometimes (mis)attributed to J.S. Bach. The arrangement’s brilliant. Krylov’s a wizard.