There are many variables that can affect the enjoyment of a symphonic performance, at the head of which is the relationship between the musicians and the conductor. If it is strong and productive, it can take a performance to new musical level. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Jun Märkl seem to have that kind of sympathetic relationship and it resulted in some fine music-making in this program.

Jun Märkl
© Jean Baptiste Millot

The music from Manuel De Falla’s 1916 orchestral suite from the ballet El amor brujo, a story of witchcraft and love, captures both the sensual and the demonic. It contains thirteen sections. Introduction and Scene and In the Cave: Night” are both drenched in suspense, anxious anticipation and a general foreboding. As the heroine Candelas contends with the spirit of her dead and jealous husband, the music is wistful and sad, as in the gorgeous Song of Love’s Sorrow. But after a time her husband’s spirit begins to vex Candelas with nightly appearances (The Apparition and the Dance of Terror). Finally, our heroine learns of her husband’s infidelities and she herself has fallen in love with the handsome Carmelo.  Based on neighborly advice, Candela seeks to exorcize her husband’s ghost with the musical flames of the Ritual Fire Dance but to no avail. Finally in the Dance of the Game of Love the ghost is distracted by beautiful Lucia and this provides an opening for Candelas and Carmelo to escape to see a new day of love in the Finale.

Columbian-born soprano Catalina Cuervo sang the score’s two songs, Love’s Sorrow and Song of the Will-o’-the Wisp.  Ms Cuervo wore a flaming red dress that captured perfectly the themes of fire and passion found in De Falla’s music. She occasionally accented the songs by rhythmically stamping her feet in a flamenco-like style. Maestro Märkl paid particular attention to ensuring precise entrances of the various ASO sections but he seemed to attend less to the overall intensity of the sound, which created difficulty for Ms Cuervo who’s beautiful, but not large, voice was often inaudible against the full orchestra. But Märkl’s interpretation was so bold and the ASO was so attuned to it that this seemed like a minor flaw.        

French-born pianist Bertrand Chamayou was the soloist in Strauss’ Burleske in D minor. It is a 17-minute piece that starts with a theme in the timpani that reappears throughout the work. The piano enters with grand flourishes, followed by a lyrical section, a waltz section, and a finale culminating with the re-emergence of the timpani’s theme. Composed when Strauss was only 20-years old, it has an expansive confidence but is tinged with romantic excesses, such as grand swirling piano passages and cadenzas. Chamayou and Märkl were quite together in their approach to the music and the balance between piano and orchestra was superb, which made for a grand performance. The Burleske is a pretty, but lightweight piece, by a youthful composer who had yet to find his full musical and creative skill.     

Ms Cuervo and Mr Chamayou presented an encore of two songs by De Falla: Nana and Polo from the Siete canciones populares españolas. In the latter, Mr Chamayou placed paper over the piano strings so that when struck, a percussive castanet- or tambourine-like effect was created. Ms Cuervo’s voice took very nicely to being paired with the piano and the duet format played well to her vocal strengths.     

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 in B flat major begins with a dark theme in the woodwinds and strings but eventually transitions to a sprightly and energetic mood that characterizes the remainder of the first-movement (Allegro vivace). The second movement Adagio is reminiscent of the work of Haydn, who was Beethoven’s teacher. The third and fourth movements (Allegro molto e vivace and Allegro ma non troppo) are upbeat and optimistic. Here, the ASO again demonstrated tight ensemble and Märkl kept the tempo appropriately brisk. Likely both the conductor and the orchestra could play this familiar work with their eyes closed, but they gave their full attention to it and it was a strong performance.