Just as he did last week,  Robert Spano opened the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert with a contemporary work and ended with an often-heard classical masterpiece. Jennifer Higdon's 2002 "Concerto for Orchestra,"  a work that Spano and the ASO recorded a year after its première with the Philadelphia Orchestra, began the program. Ms. Higdon is part of the Atlanta School of Composers, a group of contemporary classical music composers that Spano has chosen to champion through ASO performances and recordings (the School also includes Christopher Theofanidis, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi and Adam Schoenburg).

Robert Spano © Angela Morriss
Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss
One characteristic of the music written by these composers it that it is often understandable or "accessible" upon first hearing: this is certainly true of Higdon's work with its immediately appealing and intriguing sounds. Though not technically an homage, this contemporary concerto shares a few characteristics with the similarly named piece by Belá Bartók, written some seven decades ago: both have five movements; the breathless energy of the first movement of Higdon's Concerto is reminiscent of the final movement of Bartók's; both spotlight the orchestra's principal players and various sections to demonstrate their individual colors and sonorities.

The first movement of Higdon's Concerto features rapid, frenzied figures in the strings and percussion.  There is  hardly a moment of respite from the fury until the very end, where the brass and woodwinds finally slow down the tempo and turn down the volume.  Higdon says that she composed this movement after the other four in order to find a suitable way to begin.  If she was looking for contrast to the other four movements, she was successful. Scored for strings only, the second movement, according to the composer, was designed to show off the wonderful string sound of the Philadelphians.  In this performance, the ASO strings had their own brand of shimmer and polish that served the music very well. Opening with eerie-sounding bowed vibraphones and crotales, the music in the third movement is surprisingly quiet.  Eventually the strings join in and the tempo of the music steadily increases.  This movement provides an opportunity to hear some of  Higdon's ability to develop musical themes.

The fourth movement mostly features percussion  because, as Higdon  states in her comments on the piece, that that "...section of the orchestra has had the greatest amount of development during the 20th century." In this movement, Ms. Higdon melds  percussion and strings into an organic whole rather than having them play parallel but no-integrated lines and this is a very strong feature of the Concerto.   The final movement has prominent rhythmic drive while highlighting the various sections of the orchestra.  The tempo continues to increase and themes reappear until the final statement by the full orchestra.  Spano kept tight control over the orchestra's dynamics and the entrances of the soloists and  various sections of the orchestra were crisp. Both the principal players  and the entire ensemble played admirably in their respective parts. The massive percussion section played flawlessly. Higdon's Concerto is enjoyable music that offers a great way to showcase the color, range, and power of a skilled orchestra like the ASO.

The second work on the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major "Emperor" . Jonathan Biss, the soloist, grew up in a family of musicians (both of his parents are violinists) that must have helped him develop his great musicality.  He is on the faculty of the Curtis institute of Music and is known for his intense learning about one composer before moving onto learning about another. For the past five years he has focused on Beethoven, both in performing and in writing.  His performance with the ASO was subtle and nuanced, and he paid particular attention to the music's dynamic adding an extra bit of excitement to it. Spano very carefully followed suit, using his left hand extensively to cue the orchestra's volume  One odd characteristic of  Symphony Hall is that when a piano (or any other instrument for that matter) is close to the front of the stage, it seems to be in a different acoustic space than the orchestra. The piano sounded a bit distant as if being awash in the echo of the hall, while the orchestra sounds more immediate.  Notwithstanding this, Bis, Spano and the ASO provided a fine performance that made a very familiar work sound fresh and exciting.

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