When young artists take the stage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it is very satisfying. The guest on the podium was 40-year old British conductor Michael Francis, currently Music Director of the Florida Orchestra. Joining him in Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor was 24-year old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, hailed by some in the press as the most important British talent in decades.

Michael Francis © Marco Borggreve
Michael Francis
© Marco Borggreve

The program began with a quintessential piece of Americana by Aaron Copland, the suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring. The version played here was from 1945, in which the composer expanded the original 13-piece chamber orchestration to one for a larger symphony orchestra. The six-part work begins with a slow introduction designed to introduce the ballet’s characters, and it was performed with suitable restraint. The second section begins with a rapid announcement by the strings followed by an overly loud entrance by the brass. The third section, labeled Moderate, was a showcase for the flawless warmth of the woodwind section. The Quite Fast fourth section was rousing and the fifth section Still Faster had some wonderfully impressive unison playing by the violins. The Very Slow sixth section was beautifully moody and the final Calm and Flowing (known for its Simple Gifts theme) section was suitably spare, reverent and triumphant. The violin and flute duet at the work's conclusion was played magnificently, the two musicians matching each other perfectly, as if only one were playing, and almost creating the sound of a new instrument (maybe the violute or the flutolin!?). The final section had some orchestral imbalances, which may have been related to the size of the orchestra itself (neither a chamber orchestra nor a full-sized symphony ensemble).

Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto was composed over a three-week period in 1868 and remains a popular work from this sometimes undervalued conservative French Romantic composer. It has been variously described as a traditional symphony without the first movement or as a work that begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach, i.e., because of its changes of style. The concerto’s introduction begins with a strong and extended statement by the piano and the entire first movement unfolds in a Bach-like fantasia. Under Maestro Francis this movement sounded unfocused, like a series of piano arpeggios and runs with orchestral accompaniment. The performance of the second movement was far more successful, with its sprightly themes perfectly captured. The tarantella-like third movement was also strikingly good. Grosvenor was impressive. He managed to create a firestorm of sound without excessive body histrionics. In spite of the problems of the first movement, Grosvenor knew his musical target and he hit it precisely. His performance was truly remarkable. For an encore, he played Moszkowski’s Etude in A flat minor, Op.72 no. 11.

After the intermission, Maestro Francis addressed the audience about Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5 in D major, the final work on the program. He talked about the possible meaning of the work as it related to ending of the Second World War (although the composer himself declined to provide any sort of program for the symphony). Francis’ admiration for his fellow countryman was apparent. The composer dedicated the work to Jean Sibelius, whose influence can be heard sprinkled throughout the symphony. The first movement Preludio has a sense of unease, in part due to its indistinct tonality, and like most of the work, it was fairly quiet, rarely ever becoming a full forte. The second movement Scherzo relies on rhythmic creativity and ambiguity to set its mood. The Romanza third movement features some beautiful melodic lines for the English horn, played magnificently by Emily Brebach. The final movement Passacaglia is a bit reminiscent of church music but, eventually, the composer moves away from it for a recapitulation of the themes of the first movement, ending with some wonderful passages for the woodwinds and upper strings. This is a reflective work that never utilizes bombast to draw attention; rather it urges the orchestra to produce musical warmth and introspection. The ASO performed beautifully, with the strings sounding especially full and warm. Vaughan Williams’ music was turned out beautifully under Maestro Francis’ baton. It was truly a fine performance.