There is a sense of normalcy returning to Atlanta’s Symphony Hall. Most patrons and orchestra members were unmasked, there were no more vaccine card checks, and co-artistic advisor and former music director Robert Spano was back on the podium. Spano’s choice of music was also a return to normal: two contemporary works continuing his advocacy for modern music and a third work firmly entrenched in the late Romantic era for which he has a particular affinity.

Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Jeff Roffman

The first work was written to celebrate Spano’s history of nurturing contemporary American composers by leading performances of their music by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In a pre-performance video interview, composer Mark Buller, whose music has been previously performed by the orchestra, said that the title The Parallactic Transits reflects the concept of measuring the movement of celestial bodies through the heavens using the phenomenon of parallax, something that he says Spano has done for American new music. Well, I take his word for it. Mostly the music was many rapid-fire phrases tossed around the orchestra with strategically placed percussive embellishment. Yet, just as it had begun exploring the universe, the three-minute work was over. If nothing else, it garnered attention and fulfilled the mission of being a good overture to the rest of the concert.

Avi Avital, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Jeff Roffman

Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary composers, having won many awards for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize and three Grammys. Higdon is also a featured member of Spano’s “Atlanta School of Composers”. In keeping with her history of composing audience-pleasing concertos, she agreed to pen a mandolin concerto at the request of Israeli-born Avi Avital, who premiered the work last June in Munich. The concerto is in two movements. Both have Higdon’s characteristic use of orchestral color and an instinctive, rather than formal, sense of structure. Her music is thoroughly accessible, and it can be appreciated on one hearing. Because of the delicate sound of the mandolin, Higdon uses smaller groupings within the pared-down orchestra to ensure that the sound of the solo instrument can be heard. The second movement is particularly energizing, with a mandolin introduction sounding vaguely Middle-Eastern, which leads to a rousing finale. Because it is a plucked instrument, the mandolin cannot sustain a note; the soloist must repeatedly strum to create the illusion of a long tone. At this Avital excels – his right hand moved extraordinarily fast, to the point of being a blur. Musicians at the rear of the stage must have had difficulty hearing the audience-facing, delicate-sounding instrument; it fell to Spano to ensure balance and cohesion, and that he did. This was an astounding performance of a wonderful composition. The only disappointment was that it received a muted response from the audience.

Avi Avital and Robert Spano
© Jeff Roffman

The final work on the program was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, easily one of the most popular pieces in the symphonic repertoire. It is based on the story of the queen who staves off execution by telling compelling stories ad seriatim to keep her sultan spouse entertained for 1001 nights. Rimsky’s music is full of melody, engaging rhythms and opportunities for principals in the orchestra to show their musical and technical abilities. In this performance, the woodwinds were especially nuanced and the solo violin passages were played to perfection. Maestro Spano was energized for this performance, bringing out the absolute best in the ASO.

In this wonderful evening of music-making, a return to something akin to normalcy is exactly what the ASO and its patrons enjoyed!