The beginning of each Atlanta Symphony Orchestra season introduces patrons to updates made in the Memorial Arts building. This year, posh new lobby lounges and lighting were installed. Of course, there have been major changes to the ASO itself, especially with the arrival of its new Music Director Nathalie Stutzmann, who has yet to settle in, given the demands of her busy international schedule. Further, nearly half of the ASO’s section principal positions are vacant, and the brass and string sections have experienced a shortage of players. Even the principal librarian position is vacant.

Hannu Lintu conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Rand Lines

Despite these personnel changes, the orchestra, under guest conductor Hannu Lintu, managed to provide a satisfying concert of music by two late Romantic composers, Sibelius and Korngold, and one very popular contemporary American, Jennifer Higdon. Lintu is not yet well known here, but his European career has included positions in Ireland, Sweden and his native Finland. Recently he was appointed Music Director of Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra. 

The opening work was Sibelius’ The Oceanides, a single movement tone poem about Grecian mythological nymphs. It has three thematic sections depicting a calm ocean, a gathering storm and a full-blown wave-crashing tempest. Its orchestration and style are instantly recognizable as Sibelius – swirling woodwinds, staccato strings, prominent brass that seems to drive the music to its grand finale. Lintu conducted a rousing performance, although the violins were often overpowered by the brass, which was loud and lacking finesse.

Violin megastar Gil Shaham joined the ASO for a performance of Korngold's popular Violin Concerto in D major, written in 1945, but with its musical heart in the late 19th century. Despite his desire to be a concert and opera composer, Korngold is mostly known as a creator of film music and, not surprisingly, themes that he had previously composed for movies found their way into this concerto. The first movement, chock full of neo-romantic lyricism, was played to perfection by Shaham, who coaxed every bit of romance and longing from his Stradivarius. The audience broke into applause after the first movement, which gave Shaham a chance to retune his instrument. 

Gil Shaham and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Rand Lines

The second movement, marked Romance, requires the violinist to use long slow bowings to heat up the romantic temperature of the music, which Shaham did with eloquence. The finale is based on the main theme from the film The Prince and the Pauper. It is the least successful moment of the concerto; its cinematic roots are obvious, and the music seems compelled to leave the concert hall to return to the movie palace. Despite its shortcomings, Shaham played the music on its own terms giving a straightforward, richly romantic interpretation. Shaham was delighted with the playing of the ASO, smiling with approval throughout. He seemed especially happy to play the score’s duets with Concertmaster David Coucheron. The audience gave a thunderous response and Shaham encored with Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau, played flawlessly.

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is a familiar work to the Atlanta audience; it was performed here in 2015 and 2019. It is a five-movement work, all of which showcases every section of the orchestra and is occasionally thematically reminiscent of the famous Bartók concerto. The first movement is notable for its loudness and the third for it shimmering use of the percussion section. Despite not having key players, the ASO performed brilliantly under Lintu, completing an auspicious Atlanta debut.