The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by their Music Director Robert Spano, premiered the latest episode in their pre-recorded Behind the Curtain series with what seemed like the perfect combination of repertoire for a streamed concert. Musical textures, instrumentation and styles were all varied, and none of the works — three of which were new to ASO, including a world premiere — overstayed their welcome. Pianist Yefim Bronfman was an impeccable soloist in Beethoven’s third piano concerto.

Robert Spano
© Atlanta Symphony

American composer Michael Abels’s Delights and Dances for solo string quartet and string orchestra is in two parts. The first is slow and heavily influenced by blues, beginning with a lengthy cello solo, eventually adding the other soloists, over pizzicato accompaniment in the orchestra. The effect was of a “blues song without words” accompanied by a classical jazz combo. A short transition passage connects the second part, much more lively in what could be described as a blues concerto grosso, in which the quartet, riffing with each other, is played against the orchestra. Rhythmic complexity is paired with moments of ecstatic melody. The work made a strong impression, especially in its effective combination of jazz/blues and classical influences.

Clarisse Assad’s The Book of Spells for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp and viola, was given its world premiere by the ASO’s Merian Ensemble, a group of players who specialize in the performance of works by women. The Brazil native’s work is in three parts, based on sections of a book about witches and spells the composer was reading during composition. The chapter themes – matters of the heart, wealth and property, health and well-being – are not obviously programmatic in the music itself. Each of the musical chapters had its own sound world; all were mysterious and atmospheric, calling upon the players to use extended instrumental techniques. In the second “spell” players rubbed the rims of “tuned” water goblets to create eerie sounds combined with a Tibetan singing bowl. The harp was the sonic glue that held the movements together. The Book of Spells is awash in arresting sounds and ideas, and the Merian Ensemble’s performance was compelling.

Merian Ensemble
© Atlanta Symphony

Benjamin Britten composed his Sinfonietta – published as his Op.1 – at the age of 18 while he was a student at the Royal College of Music. He restored it for chamber orchestra in 1936. It is often instructive to listen to very early works by composers of later renown. In the Sinfonietta Britten has obviously not yet found his compositional voice, but there are techniques (for example, scale passages with two instruments simultaneously playing a major second apart) the Britten returned to throughout his career. Britten’s skills in counterpoint and orchestration are very much in evidence, and the ASO gave a reading showing off their virtuosity, particularly in the breakneck third-movement Tarantella.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, with the masterful Yefim Bronfman as the soloist. The piano was very closely mic’d, and the sound mixed with that of the orchestra. There was no sense of what the performance might have sounded like in the auditorium, yet the advantage of this engineering decision was the focus on Bronfman’s immaculately pristine technique and phrasing. It was a masterclass in clarity and pianistic voicing that otherwise would have been lost. The opening piano passage in the second movement was exquisite in its stillness. The final Allegro was a rollicking finish to a very fine concert.

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream