Thursday’s performance at Symphony Hall by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brought forth music by Pärt, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, led by Danish conductor Thomas Søndergard and featuring Latvian-born violinist Baiba Skride as guest soloist. This is another “two concerts only” week for the ASO, so it will not be performed again until Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
There was also a pre-concert event on Thursday: the first of this year’s series of chamber concerts that are free and open to ticket holders for the evening’s orchestral concert. As in the past, the audience was invited to sit onstage to listen, and this was the first time since the new acoustical shell was installed.
Sitting under the new shell offered the onstage audience a direct sense of the improvements experienced by the ASO musicians. There is an immediate sense of “heightened reality” where it feels like one is hyper-conscious of every element of detail, including the smallest scratch of the bow. It’s an exciting aural experience for those who believe one ought to “smell the rosin” in chamber music. There are four more of these pre-concert chamber music events this season.
The selections were meant to offer up chamber music by composers who were also represented in the orchestral fare that started at 8 p.m. The performers were all ASO members. Violinist Justin Bruns and pianist Peter Marshall performed Pärt’s delicate, ephemeral “Spiegel im Spiegel” and the Franklin Pond Quartet — violinists Jun-Ching Lin and Carolyn Hancock, violist Paul Murphy and cellist Daniel Laufer — played Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, the composer’s shortest at a mere 13 minutes.
Pärt’s “cantus in memory of benjamin britten,” gently opened the orchestral concert, beginning with almost inaudible notes from a single chime tuned to “A,” which was tolled throughout the evocative elegy that was otherwise scored for strings only. It’s an early example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style known for its relative conceptual simplicity. It was a lovely, contemplative way of starting off the program.
Søndergard is principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and principal guest conductor of the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra. He made a good showing in this ASO concert.
Born into a musical family, the 32-year-old Skride won the Queen Elisabeth Violin Contest in 2001. Her current violin is the Stradivarius “Ex Baron Feilitzsch” (1734), an instrument previously played by Latvian violinist and conductor Gidon Kremer.
Both Skride and Søndergard are making their ASO debut with this week’s concerts. They have, however, worked together before on multiple occasions, one example being Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto with the Danish Radio Orchestra — a piece which, incidentally, violinist Hilary Hahn will perform with the ASO in February. They’ve also performed together Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which Skride will play next Thursday with the Sønderjyllands Symfoniorkester in Denmark.
Their paths coming together again with this ASO, concert Skride and Søndergard tackled Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, which Skride had played twice just last week with conductor Jorge Mester and the Naples Philharmonic in Florida. Written in 1878, it stands today as one of the best known concertos in the violin repertoire and the solo part is fiendishly difficult.
The audience decided to buck traditional protocol and offer Skride applause after the progressively virtuosic first movement. They gave her, Søndergard and the orchesra multiple ovations at the end. Skride’s performance was robust and athletic, pleasing the crowd greatly. But it also at times felt more forced than a benchmark rendering like that of Joshua Bell, especially in its more lyric moments.
The Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich comprised the second half. At 50 minutes, it’s a long steel-gray battleship of a work in many respects, nonetheless great in its iron-clad architecture and often sombre expressions for much of its span. The celebratory finale gave the orchestra a good opportunity to show its stuff in a more overt, rousing conclusion.
As with previous recent programs, remember to pick up the full program notes behind the cough drop bowls located on either side of the entrance from the lobby. Or ask the cheerfully helpful ushers, who will point you to them.