Music director Robert Spano guides the ASO and Chorus in its March 31 Kennedy Center performance. (Photo by Jati Lindsay/Kennedy Center)
ArtsATL > Music > Year in Review: 2017 was strong for classical music and opera, marked by profound loss

Year in Review: 2017 was strong for classical music and opera, marked by profound loss

Looking back on 2017, the richness and continued potential of Atlanta’s diverse musical offerings shone well throughout the year.

For the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, 2017 was marked by growing optimism about the orchestra’s future among musicians, patrons and audience. The orchestra added significantly to its roster in 2017, allowing the orchestra’s ranks to begin a process of restoration and reblossoming, thanks to fundraising efforts the previous year that brought the Musicians’ Endowment Fund beyond its $25 million goal. Though unrelated to that fund, there was also the auspicious arrival of 29-year-old Stephen Mulligan as the ASO’s assistant conductor at the beginning of the 2017–18 season.

After having been through some years of hard, contentious times in the middle of the decade, 2017 showed the ASO well on its way toward regaining its deserved status as a world-class orchestra and as a “destination orchestra” for classical musicians. Strong performances, led by music director Robert Spano, principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and a panoply of guest conductors, plus an excellent array of solo artists, attested to positive directions, as well as stabilized operations behind the scenes.

One of the highlights of the spring was the reprise production of the oratorio “Creation/Creator” by Christopher Theofanidis, one of the original members of the ASO’s Atlanta School of Composers.

Led by Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus subsequently took the the show to Washington, DC, for the inaugural Shift Festival hosted by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, where they wowed the festival’s audience.

The ASO and Chorus performed Creation/Creator, a piece it commissioned in 2014 from composer Christopher Theofanidis. (Photo by Jati Lindsay/Kennedy Center)

Also in the spring, the ASO announced its 2017–18 season, featuring a two-year tribute to Beethoven and Bernstein, dubbed “LB/LB,” as an overarching theme. In addition, the orchestra announced its plan to perform and record a CD of music by Michael Kurth, a composer and member of the ASO’s contrabass section whose star-power has risen considerably over the last few years for both his orchestral works written for the ASO and his copious body of music for string quartet and other chamber music.

The ASO also showed notable interest in opera in 2017, presenting a semi-staged performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice format, which had been absent from the Symphony Hall stage during some leaner recent seasons.

In a similar vein, the ASO emphatically closed its 2016–17 subscription season with a concert that included an un-staged Act I of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, paired with the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, and the premiere of a new work by Houston-based composer Mark Buller, who had been granted opportunity to write the piece for the ASO as part of the prize for winning the previous year’s Rapido! Composition Contest, a national competition for composers anchored in Atlanta.

In October, the ASO continued its operatic aspirations with a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, featuring Atlanta-based tenor Russell Thomas in his first portrayal of the title role. Verdi was again on tap in November, when Runnicles led the ASO and Chorus in a splendid rendition of Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” — a concert piece, but rife with operatic overtones.

The Seven Deadly Sins made good use of the performance space at Paris On Ponce in September of 2017. Thanks to a new Blank Foundation grant, the Atlanta Opera can continue with its popular Discoveries Series. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Opera continued to grow, solidify and innovate under the leadership of general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun and music director Arthur Fagen, both in its main-stage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and its engaging, exploratory “Discovery Series” of chamber operas. At the beginning of the year, the company also began a national search to replace long-time chorus master Walter Huff.

Two of the year’s Discovery Series productions took place at the colorful Eastside burlesque lounge, La Maison Rouge, at Paris on Ponce: the February production of Astor Piazzolla’s darkly sexy tango opera, María de Buenos Aires, and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins — both highly suited to that shadowy, dark-hued alternative venue. Likewise, the series’ production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera (“The Secret Gardener”) took advantage of the sunny, floral, outdoor ambiance of the Atlanta Botanical Garden for its performances. The Discovery Series has made such an impression on the city’s operatic scene that it found itself the recipient of a $1.2 million Blank Foundation grant in October.

The main-stage series also had its due impact with occasionally innovative productions, including a 1950s Hollywood setting for Donizetti’s comedy classic Don Pasquale and a brand-new, rather cinematic take on Wagner’s ghostly drama, The Flying Dutchman.

Opera also made national news at Spivey Hall in early 2017, when the Metropolitan Opera National Council regional auditions, held there in February, ended in a stunning three-way tie.

Colonel Bruce Hampton (center), with Jimmy Herring and John McLaughlin in 2013.

Among Spivey Hall’s stellar presentations is its piano recital series, and at the recital by Benjamin Grosvenor in November, executive and artistic director Sam Dixon announced the acquisition of a new Hamburg Steinway & Sons D-274 piano, named “Robert,” to be the companion piano to the hall’s “Clara” Hamburg Steinway.

In other chamber music news, Rachel Ciprotti stepped down in the spring as executive director of the Atlanta Chamber Players to move to Seattle. She has been succeeded in the post by Vanya Foote.

There were also a few anniversaries. The Emory Chamber Music Society celebrated its 25th year in September at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, with a total of 28 musicians participating. Contemporary music ensemble Chamber Cartel marked its fifth anniversary in January by reprising its very first program, Morton Feldman’s “Crippled Symmetry,” at the First Existentialist Church in Candler Park, the same location where the group made its debut.

In early April, the SoundNOW Festival, a loose collection of contemporary music concerts over the span of about a week, marked its second year of existence, engaging a variety of local new music ensembles in the endeavor. At the end of that week, Georgia State University School of Music and contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency presented three concerts of music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, who had briefly resided in Georgia in the 1970s prior to his long sojourn as a composer in the Alaskan interior, which would come to place its indelible stamp upon his musical style.

January 2017 also brought forth the debut of contemporary string quartet Cantos Y Cuentos at the southwest downtown experimental pocket venue, Eyedrum Arts and Music Gallery. Eyedrum was also the host for other unusual music presentations, such as Ohio-based trombonist and composer Matthew Saunders performing the world premiere of his “Twenty Views of the Trombone” in February as part of the venue’s Composer’s Concert Series.

Percussionist Olivia Kieffer, who had been overseeing the series for a while, bid farewell to Atlanta with her own concert at Eyedrum in May as she prepared to head back to her home state of Wisconsin to pursue continued academic studies.

Among new music recordings by Atlanta-based composers, in the summer Spano released an album of his own compositions for piano solo and voice with piano, as both composer and pianist, on the ASO Media label.

Dick Robinson was a pioneer of electronic music.

Late summer also saw the release by the Bent Frequency Duo Project (saxophonist Jan Berry Baker and percussionist Stuart Gerber) of their new Diamorpha album. Among its other projects in 2017, Bent Frequency also embraced the crowd-engaged, DIY open-to-all aesthetic of Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” in December as a kind of anarchic alt-Holiday “joyful noise” to celebrate the season.

Music for film continued to be a popular draw in 2017, from live chamber ensembles accompanying art film, such as Alicia Svigal’s score for the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket or a Hollywood tribute mega-extravaganza like the light-and-graphics festooned “Hans Zimmer Live On Tour” concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.

Although too often overlooked in the shadow of the city’s hip-hop dominated image, Atlanta’s jazz scene is alive and well. The Atlanta Jazz Festival celebrated its 40th year in 2017 during Memorial Day Weekend. Callanwolde Fine Arts Center continued its popular outdoor “Jazz on the Lawn” summer series, featuring acts like “Papa J.” Sommerville and Virginia Schenck.

Although the venerated jazz club Churchill Grounds, which closed last year, found new digs at The Beacon mixed-use development on the south side of Grant Park, and planned to reopen in the fall of 2017, Atlantans are still awaiting its debut there. Accessing performances by jazz artists, especially local ones, often means knowing where to look, like saxophonist Dwan Bosman’s end-of-August performance at the Red Light Cafe, which included other accomplished Bosman family musicians.

The local music industry continued to move forward in 2017. In February, Georgia found itself well-represented in the 59th annual Grammy Awards. Then at the end of March, legislation that gave significant tax incentives to Georgia’s music industry was passed by the state’s General Assembly.

But the rock music world lost a number of notable musicians in 2017, including two local icons, Colonel Bruce Hampton and Gregg Allman in late spring. Atlanta’s classical avant garde also lost an iconic figure with the passing of nonagenarian composer Dick Robinson, an electronic music pioneer and a former violinist with the ASO.

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