The season finale of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was a bit like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: one piece was too hot, one was too cold, and the other was just right. Music Director Robert Spano conducted this concert of two familiar works and one new piece.

Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is a cornerstone of the Impressionist-style of music and some have heralded it as a major departure point of departure for modern music. It is a languorous, atmospheric and sensual work, representing a faun's longing for and dreaming of forest nymphs and naiads during a hot summer day. The introductory theme, played beautifully by flutist Christina Smith, is taken up by other woodwinds, then various sections of the orchestra, and ultimately the full orchestra. Following the beautiful flute introduction, the orchestra came in, not lightly on cat’s feet, but rather heavily on bear's claws; it left little dynamic room for the remainder of the piece, which requires ample sonic space to gradually swell to a climax, then recede. This performance also lacked subtlety and transparency, the playing thick and heavy, rather than gossamer light and sensual. The ASO’s sound does not translate well into French Impressionist spirit, which may have been exacerbated by Maestro Spano’s interpretation and Symphony Hall’s dry acoustics. Nevertheless, throughout this performance, there was impressive solo work by various musicians, especially the woodwinds.

Alan Fletcher’s 2017 Piano Concerto featured piano soloist Inon Barnatan. This work was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Aspen Music Festival, and the Atlanta Symphony, the latter two of which Maestro Spano has a close affiliation. Suffice to say, every so often a contemporary work comes along that prompts the listener to say “I would like to hear that again”. This is not that work. The concerto’s three movements seem to have little to do with each other musically or thematically, although the composer says that the movements are tied together by virtue of each being built around a song. The first movement, “Song in the Time of War”, has the piano and orchestra competing for sonic prominence, with the orchestra usually winning. It isn’t until about two-thirds of the way into it that the piano has an actual solo passage. In fact, one might conceive of this movement as a stand-alone meditation with piano obbligato, although its harsh sounds are not particularly meditative. The composer says that this section “leads to a tremendous, chaotic outburst. It’s very loud and troubling.” An apt description. The second movement “Songs Without Words” is more lyrical, with the piano playing what the composer says would be the accompaniment to the second stanza of Wordsworth’s Ode, Intimations of Immortality.  The final movement “Quodlibet” references an ancient musical form in which several songs or parts of songs are combined. The songs used here are Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance and the spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Neither song comes off unscathed. The whole movement is driven by a drum-set in a sort of jazzy style, very reminiscent of the 1950s adaptations for symphonic orchestras of 1930s songs, which usually lumbered along in a most un-jazz-like fashion. Except here, discordant chords were added, seemingly to make it more contemporary sounding. Again the piano was being played, but usually not loud enough to matter. All in all, a disappointing and harsh work.

The final work on the program was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, where Maestro Spano and the orchestra presented a strong, dynamic, virtuosic performance. The ASO sound was perfect for this masterpiece of orchestral color and orchestration. This was a near-perfect performance, save a few balance problems between the French horns and the rest of the orchestra. The violin solos by Concertmaster David Coucheron were strong, yet subtle; the cello solos by acting Associate Principal Daniel Laufer were confident and beautifully shaped. The woodwinds again demonstrated their power and technical prowess, with especially good work by the reeds. While the ASO sound might be a mismatch for Debussy, it is perfectly suited for the big, romantic, and dramatic intensity of Rimsky. This was a great piece to end the season on a high note!