Psychologists use ink-blot tests in an effort to understand a person’s motivations, relationships, thought processes, emotions, etc. The underlying theory is that a person projects their thoughts, desires, etc. onto the mostly unstructured blot, giving the examiner access to those processes, unfiltered by psychological defenses or social acceptability. To some degree, music is similar: each listener can ascribe meaning to the sound they are hearing and that meaning may or may not be in accord with what the composer intended to convey. Beginning with the Romantic era composers, have often layered a program onto their music, which helps influence our perceptions.

Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) program featured a work by a composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music is often ascribed momentous meaning by listeners. This is, in part, because the vast majority of his music was written against the backdrop of our general understanding of his difficulties in contending with artistic-expression limitations in the former Soviet Union, and our shared understanding of tyranny of that government, especially under Josef Stalin, who was a longtime nemesis of the composer.

This weekend marked the fortieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles addressed the audience about the relationship of communism, the wall’s destruction, and Shostakovich’s music, especially his final symphony. In no small part, Runnicles was priming the collective emotional pump. In fact, the composer’s final symphony, written not long before his death, is the musical equivalent of cinema or novel; it is often interpreted as a retrospective of the highs and lows of the composer’s life. Thinking of Shostakovich’s music as an analog to an ink-blot, we as listeners can project meaning onto it and in the process, become excited, playful, nostalgic, happy and, most often, sad.

Runnicles led the ASO in a taut, controlled, and compelling performance of the composer’s Symphony no. 15 in A major. The first movement was child-like, with occasional intrusive sounds reminiscent of war machines and an excerpt from Rossini’s William Tell overture. The composer made it easy for us to hear his music as a remembrance of childhood innocence lost. The second movement Adagio is rather bleak and heartbreaking music. It provided a showcase for new principal cello Rainer Eudeikis; his darkly rich instrument, combined with his assertive playing, added immensely to the music’s power. Even the sometimes ragged entrances of the brass could not dispel the grim mood. The third movement is introduced with a theme in the bassoons played here with absolute precision and determination. Runnicles skillfully kept this Scherzo-like music teetering between the serious at one moment and the humorous in the next. The ASO percussion was impressive in the final movement; their sound was nicely integrated into the sound of the full orchestra. The passacaglia section that begins in the tympani was played deftly by assistant principal Michael Stubbart, who impressed with his clean strokes. Every section of the orchestra and their principal players has an opportunity to be showcased in this work and all performed beautifully. The silence of the audience during the performance was a tribute to the music-as-ink-blot theory; there was not a metaphorical dry eye in the house.

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s often played, and much beloved, Violin Concerto in D major, with Canadian-born soloist James Ehnes, who generates a sweet and generous sound with his instrument. He also avoids physical histrionics while playing. Save a few bowing glitches and an occasional dropped note in the first movement cadenza, this was a fine performance that emphasized the Slavic roots and sound of this piece. Ehnes and Runnicles were a great partnership, and the ASO accompanied superbly.