On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened its 2017–18 season with an all-American concert of music by Bernstein, Kurth and Gershwin, led by music director Robert Spano, with guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as featured soloist. The program will be repeated Saturday evening.
The concert impressed as a remarkable piece of programming: each piece a kind of search for American identity at critical times since the First World War.
In long-standing tradition for American orchestral season openers, the program opened with Walter Damrosch’s tried-and-true arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with the audience standing and fervently singing along.
The tune, by John Stafford Smith, was a popular British social club song that was already popular in the United States when Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem was adapted to it as lyrics, but it was not proclaimed the national anthem of the United States until 1931 — only 86 years ago. Even before that, President Woodrow Wilson charged the US Bureau of Education with overseeing creation of an official version; Damrosch’s arrangement, premiered in December, 1917, was the result. It was debuted in the middle of World War I, so patriotic fervor was running high.
Shift mental gears, if you would, as the program went to the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. In 1947 English-American poet and pacifist Wystan Hugh Auden wrote his epic, book-long eclogue in six parts, “The Age of Anxiety,” winning it a Pulitzer Prize. Auden’s stylistic range and technical acumen engagement was equally matched by his engagement with politics, religion, morality and love. Set in a wartime New York City bar, the poem explores the human search for substance and identity amid a changing industrialized civilization, through the eyes of four protagonists.
It was Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” that inspired the American composer, conductor, pianist, polymath and pacifist Leonard Bernstein, who was born only a few months before the end of the First World War, to compose his Symphony No. 2, subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” for solo piano and orchestra. Bernstein considered Auden’s tome to be “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.”
Unlike Bernstein’s more popular works, his two symphonies are rarely heard. Spano decided to program both of them during this season and next as part of the ASO’s celebration of music of Bernstein and Beethoven, astutely including “The Age of Anxiety” in this season’s opener, with the remarkable French pianist Thibaudet as soloist.
Thibaudet last teamed up with Spano and the ASO in 2015, thrilling the audience with a major early 20th-century French masterwork, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, a piece influenced by the jazz that Ravel encountered in 1928 while on a US concert tour.
Across the full span of its two sections, “The Age of Anxiety” treats the piano soloist as a single protagonist in a musical narrative that somewhat follows that of Auden’s poem, sonically exploring a wide range of human emotion in the course of its over half-hour duration: from tender, pensive and brooding to rambunctiously jazzy, with even occasion for a sense of grand nobility. Like in his performance of the Ravel, Thibaudet’s performance was compelling — and as one audience member pointed out, Thibaudet even looks a bit like Bernstein, leading one to easily visualize the composer himself as pianist-protagonist.
After intermission came a new, alternative arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Michael Kurth, a member of the ASO’s contrabass section who has, over the last six years, been strongly championed by Spano. Kurth described his version well in a recent interview with ArtsATL. It is very much an “alternative” approach to the song, with heavy drums running against the tune’s simple 3/4 meter, with rich, jazzy harmonies and textures. Even though it is unlikely that Kurth’s arrangement will become common coin, he is right about treating the arranging role as a reexamination of the familiar.
Next came Kurth’s “A Thousand Words,” commissioned by the ASO and premiered last year. This second performance was even better. Kurth has a fine capability for weaving colorful orchestral tapestries and textures, and the breadth and depth of emotion exhibited in “A Thousand Words” rivals that of Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” — as relevant to our 21st-century searches for meaning as Bernstein’s world was for the aftermath of World War II. Its movements are titled like four human compass points: “Above,” “Beneath,” “Within” and Beyond” — the final movement concluding with a raucously optimistic kind of carnival parade.
The concert closed with George Gershwin’s musical travelogue, “An American in Paris.” Spano led a full-bodied rendition of the popular work that was less lightweight and more substantive than often heard when performed in the context of a “pops classics” concert. Perhaps it was due to the pairing with the Bernstein and Kurth pieces that led to that kind of rendering. But it is also true that “An American in Paris” represents yet another important facet of American identity: composed in 1928, in the heady years at the end of the Roaring Twenties, only months before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was commissioned by none other than Walter Damrosch of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
As a final word on the kick-off of this season, we would be remiss in not recognizing new faces in the orchestra: a new assistant conductor and seven new members of the orchestra. In brief:
Stephen Mulligan is on board as the ASO’s new assistant conductor and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. The long-vacant position of principal second violin has been filled by Julianne Lee, who came to the ASO from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she was assistant principal second violin. Principal percussionist Joseph Petrasek most recently served as associate principal percussionist of the Kansas City Symphony for eight seasons. Associate principal bassoonist Anthony Georgeson was previously principal bassoonist of The Florida Orchestra for 10 years.
Section violist Madeline Sharp served a one-year appointment with the ASO last season and officially became a regular member of the orchestra’s viola section this season. Other new section players are first violinist Sissi Yuqing Zhang, who comes from studies at the Yale School of Music, where she was as concertmaster of Yale Philharmonia and Yale Opera; cellist Thomas Carpenter, previously with the New World Symphony; and percussionist Michael Stubbart, a metro-Atlanta native, who was previously acting principal percussionist with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra for two seasons.