Joseph Young, the young and talented Assistant Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, took the baton to perform a program that contained two beloved pieces. Mr. Young showed great promise in his first outing with the ASO last year, and tonight’s performance was an opportunity to see his progress over the year.

James Lee III is an associate professor of composition and theory at Morgan State University, Baltimore and he has been composing for about a decade and a half.  His music often has a spiritual or religious connotation and is influenced by his Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was written in 2011 and the 10-minute work makes reference to the sounds of the shofar, an ancient musical instrument made from a ram’s horn. According to the composer, the music represents the grand advent of the Messiah, who in the end, comes down from heaven, through the nebula located in the constellation Orion. That was certainly not obvious from the music itself. Nebula is a richly orchestrated, dense piece of music that has loudness as its primary characteristic. It dazzles in the use of percussion and brass, but provides little respite from its sheer volume. Even in the string-dominated third section, the woodwinds swirl in the background (but not far enough in the background), adding agitation to what could have been a restrained and introspective lyrical interlude.  It's a bombastic work that never seems to be mystical, spiritual, or ecstatic; it’s an explosion of orchestral color that seems a bit far removed from its religious origins. In part because of its newness, it is difficult to determine if this is the actual nature of the work or whether this performance reflects choices made by Maestro Young. 

The Barber Violin Concerto, with soloist Joseph Swensen, is a concert hall favorite in the United States. Swensen’s bio says that he has been a successful conductor for the past 20 years and is once again appearing in concert as a violin soloist. Swensen plays with a rich sweet tone, but there were occasional intonation errors, as in the double stops of the Andante second movement, which were off enough to be cringe-inducing. To his credit, he dug in his bow a bit to add a bit of sonic grit to the third-movement Presto finale.  Given that live concerts are both an aural and visual experience, Swensen’s stage presence presented significant distractions. Whenever he was not playing, he turned his back to the audience and watched the orchestra. It was as if he missed being in the conductor’s role, or worse, that he doesn’t like looking into the auditorium. And while playing, he had his body configured so that it blocked the sound box of his violin to half of the audience. This was accompanied by various facial grimaces, with occasional growls and assorted vocalizations. Unfortunately, Swensen’s generally adroit playing was marred by his distracting stage eccentricities.

The final work, Dvořák’s much-programmed Symphony no. 9, “From the New World” has been played in Atlanta three times in the last three seasons.  It’s probably one of those works that the ASO musicians could play on auto pilot, and unfortunately, this performance sounded like it. Woodwind accents used to punctuate main themes were sometimes as loud as the main themes. Instrumental solos were shapeless, even while they were played precisely. Maestro Young seemed to pay a great deal of attention to dynamics, but failed to have the orchestra move convincingly and gracefully from pp to ff. The introduction to the beautiful second movement Largo was played so exceedingly slow that it seemed close to running out of steam and the end of that movement was simply too loud. The third moment Scherzo contains some dance-like passages that were more leaden than light. Throughout the piece the orchestral balances were off and there was a noticeable lack of rubato that could have turned this flat performance into something a bit more sophisticated.

The ASO musicians played to their unusual high standard, but even they were let down by mediocre interpretation and the eccentric soloist.