NEW YORK CITY — In a programming coup, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra showed up at Carnegie Hall on April 30, the exact 100th birthday of Robert Shaw, the man who did so much to shape the orchestra and who built its chorus into an international phenomenon. On the program was Brahms’ magnificent German Requiem, with which Shaw was clearly obsessed.
Shaw twice conducted the German Requiem here at Carnegie, in 1990 and again in 1997, both times with the renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The first of these visits was the grand finale of the first of his choral workshops, which became a regular feature at Carnegie for nearly a decade. The 1997 sojourn showcased the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. That concert took place on the 100th anniversary of Brahms’ death. It was to be Shaw’s final performance of the Requiem; he died in 1999.
Shaw’s 1983 Telarc recording of the Requiem with the ASO and its chorus, joined by the immortal soprano Arlene Auger and the fine baritone Richard Stilwell as soloists, survives as one of his, and the orchestra’s, most significant contributions.
In the years after Shaw, the orchestra has come under the influence of two powerful forces. Yoel Levi, who followed him, brought a new level of precision to the orchestra and gave it a signature sound, anchored by burnished woodwinds. Then came Robert Spano, who brought the orchestra a swashbuckling image and cemented its reputation.
Through it all, Norman Mackenzie, who worked as Shaw’s assistant, guarded the legacy of the chorus using Shaw’s unique techniques to sustain the chorus’s special qualities.
Though this concert is ostensibly all about Shaw, it is also an opportune time to assess the orchestra and chorus, his greatest legacy. The last few years have been rather stormy with budget cuts, two lock-outs and a drastic shrinkage in the orchestra’s complement (the number of permanent players), followed by a truce late in 2014 which restored some, but not yet all, of the cuts.
Reviewing a 2010 ASO performance of the Requiem, I remarked, “The ASO Chorus seems to have been created by God especially to sing the Brahms German Requiem.” That is still the case. It is a work that showcases the chorus’s special qualities: its astonishing unity; its total dynamic range, from whispered pianissimos to thundering fortes; and the unique lack of vibrato, especially from the Sopranos, that gives it such tonal purity.
The 2010 performance was led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and marked a vivid contrast to Shaw’s version: opulent and spacious compared to the stormy, energetic approach of Shaw.
At this concert, Spano’s approach was closer to Runnicle’s in its pacing. Spano gave the work an elegiac, sometimes ponderous feel. An intense sadness ran through the performance, along with a sense of majesty. Well, it is a requiem, after all. Whatever you might feel about the drawn out tempi, one effect was to fully expose both orchestra and chorus. With less gifted forces, the approach would not have worked. But here it seemed to affirm their exalted status. Spano’s phrasing was exemplary. He accelerated artfully into satisfying crescendos in the second movement (“For all flesh is as grass”) and the joy at the return of “the ransomed of the Lord” was complete.
I don’t think it’s heresy to say this on Shaw’s centenary, but to my ear both chorus and orchestra sound better today than at any point in the Shaw era. Shaw was, first and foremost, a teacher, and the ultimate compliment one can pay him is that his students and successors, especially Mackenzie, have built on his extraordinary legacy to the point that they have surpassed his own efforts. The chorus may be stronger than ever, but its central qualities are a testament to Shaw’s vision and a direct result of his drills. The orchestra, more polished and precise from the work of Levi and Spano, is a thrilling legacy.
Experiencing this singular Requiem with Spano and the ASO forces is an immersive, strangely peaceful experience, regardless of your view of spirituality. Both Jessica Rivera, the soprano soloist, and Nmon Ford, the baritone, have distinctive tremulous voices that contrast nicely with the smooth surfaces of the ASO chorus. Rivera, who has become Spano’s “go to” soprano, is a joy to watch, her beatific gaze reinforcing the gentle, unforced sound that projects so wonderfully across the hall.
The Brahms can easily stand on its own, and usually does. But ASO’s planners decided to go overboard with this one night stand, throwing in a full-length commission. The new work, “Zohar,” by Jonathan Leshnoff, was written to take advantage of the same forces as the Requiem, right down to the soloists. With all this freight — the Shaw centennial, the Brahms, the Carnegie trip — this could easily have turned into a pretentious mess. Instead, the result is an attractive and joyous compliment to the evening.
Like Shaw, Spano has a special affection for new music, which he programs regularly. These are almost always safe neo-Romantic composers like Leshnoff.
A cantata, this work is based on the “Zohar,” which the program notes tell us is “a commentary on the Pentateuch” (the five books of Moses). The texts for three of the six movements come directly from the Zohar and are clearly hymns of praise, using exalted language and music that borders on the ponderous. The other sections “explore the human side,” and these are simpler and more joyous. Ford, the baritone, got the most interesting segment, about the answered prayer of a mere shepherd boy.
Everything sounds better in Carnegie Hall, in this case, at capacity, the audience bolstered by a healthy contingent of Atlantans: the “away game” crowd of hardcore fans. It was easy to spot them — they’re the ones who abruptly jumped to their feet at the end of every piece.
The Carnegie visit is always a special occasion, but this was singular because of the Shaw focus and the Brahms. Saturday also saw the New York premiere of the Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices documentary at the Paley Center for Media here in New York. The film was produced by Kiki Wilson, herself an ASO Chorus member.
This trek, an ASO ritual, showcases the orchestra here in the nation’s music capital. Atlantans are proud of their orchestra, and this is its biggest chance to show off. New York gets an annual parade of orchestras from all over the world, all here for the same purpose. An exalted few (Boston, London, Vienna, Chicago, and Philadelphia, for example) stick around for a few days or a week for a mini-residence, always featuring their best chops.