This past week, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented its final two concerts of the season before breaking for their 10 summer weeks off. There were many obvious similarities between the two, first Thursday at Piedmont Park and then Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park: both were informal outdoor affairs. The ASO’s new assistant conductor Joseph Young was on the podium while first violinist Kenn Wagner stepped up from the ranks to the concertmaster’s seat for both events. Both concerts shared some of the same lighter, festive American repertoire.
The works played at both venues: John Williams’ Overture to The Cowboys, Morton Gould’s “American Salute,” Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday,” the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo, and two Sousa marches, “The Washington Post” and the ubiquitous “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” But as much as the overall American flavor of the concerts were much the same, they were not clones by any means.
Of the two, the Piedmont concert leaned slightly more toward a serious tone. Two more sections of Copland’s Rodeo music got played there, “Buckaroo Holiday” and “Saturday Night Waltz.” “Sunset” from Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” as well as the “Largo” from Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) were also on that docket. The Verizon concert tilted more to popular and military themes, including a George M. Cohan medley and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” plus “America the Beautiful” and a medley of Armed Forces theme songs.
George Gershwin was represented by his Overture to “Girl Crazy” at Piedmont and by “Summertime” at Verizon. John Williams was further represented by “Superman March” at Piedmont and the “Imperial March” (aka “Darth Vader’s March”) from Star Wars at Verizon.
One special piece atypical to many American celebrations but most worthy of inclusion was the “Castle House Rag,” a trot and one-step by pioneering African American composer Lt. James Reese Europe, published and first recorded in 1914 for the influential New York ballroom dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle.
Another highlight was the “Colonel Bogey March,” also written in 1914 by a British Army bandmaster, Lt. Frederick Joseph Ricketts, under the pseudonym Kenneth J. Alford. British composer Malcolm Arnold later adapted parts of the march into his score to the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai to which he added a countermarch to be performed at the same time.
Yet it is the original “Colonel Bogey” that the public remembers, and at Saturday’s concert they remembered it well, as the audience was asked to whistle along. They did, to great effect — not only significantly loud, but a darn good impromptu performance by any standards. And the kicker: a member of the orchestra confirmed that the orchestra members were not part of the whistling. Bravo audience!
The finale at Verizon was the obligatory chestnut for American independence celebrations, though it is Russian: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Unfortunate, however, was the absence of the spectacle that usually attends the piece. Disappointingly, neither cannon nor fireworks were involved in the work’s climax. Fortunately, a rousing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” served well as encore.
Other factors differentiated the two events. Thursday’s Piedmont Promenade concert was free but with reserved tickets required, its capacity limited to 3,000. By contrast, tickets for Saturday’s concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre began at $20 for general admission for both lawn seating and a section of fixed seats, with a vastly different venue capacity of 12,000. Verizon’s lawn capacity alone is 2,000 more than Piedmont’s Promenade.
Although it did not sell out on Saturday, the audience was observably more than the Promenade at full capacity. And yet Piedmont Park’s old southeast lawn, now called the Meadow, where the ASO had long played in the past, can accommodate far more than the entire Verizon Amphitheatre. Chastain Park Amphitheater, the other large outdoor venue of historical significance to the ASO, is somewhere in the middle, able to accommodate about 6,900.
All of which is to say that the ASO and metro-Atlanta have a lot of post–economic crash issues still to work out when it comes to the orchestra performing for large public audiences in outdoor venues, because the concerts are being well received. How do you reach more of the public with these concerts, over a longer slice of summer, and who is willing to support that effort?