Three light and nearly error-proof works and one heavy masterpiece marked Laura Jackson’s return to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as guest conductor. Ms Jackson has an interesting conducting style, with an incisive right-hand beat, while employing her left hand and lithe movements to perform almost interpretive dance to the music. While never out of control, and occasionally fun to watch, her full body involvement may not be the most effective way to communicate intent to the musicians. Throughout the program, she would change the intensity of her movements, but it seemed to have little effect on the ASO’s playing.

Avi Avital © Harald Hoffmann
Avi Avital
© Harald Hoffmann

Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances is a lightweight, thoroughly enjoyable homage to music of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is composed for a chamber-sized ensemble, including a harpsichord and excluding percussion. The troublesome acoustics of Atlanta Symphony Hall actually seemed favorable to the sound produced by this smaller ensemble. Fortisssimos were clear, unlike the sonic smear that can occur when the full orchestra is playing. Ms Jackson conducted a precise, yet warm, and dance-like interpretation. The fourth movement Passo mezzo e mascherada was a nice spotlight for the ASO trumpets.

Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto in C major RV425 is a perfect vehicle for the virtuosic skills of Avi Avital. The two outer movements are rapid, while the middle movement provided an opportunity for Avital to show off his abilities with more lyrical passages. This short piece is sunny, bright and fun. Mr Avital is a joy to watch, attacking his mandolin with abandon, but never losing his musicality. There was a good balance between the small ASO ensemble and the soloist, but it appeared as though the mandolin was being mic’d so it was difficult to tell if the fine balance was electronically induced.

Avner Dornan's 2006 Mandolin Concerto is a three-movement work played attacca. It was difficult to hear the three sections as distinct, since each section also contains a variety of styles, rhythms and tempos. The work provides ample opportunity for Mr Avital, who commissioned the work, to again demonstrate his mastery of the mandolin, including rapid fingering, striking the instrument, and detuning the strings, all whilst maintaining musical coherence. The string-length manipulations added an element of exoticism to the final movement. The composer seems intent on making the mandolin sound like a Middle-Eastern instrument, which is fine, if a bit inauthentic. Avital seemed to relish the challenges of the music, using his body to coerce volume out of his somewhat shy instrument. The concerto is an engaging work, easy to listen and only 16-minutes long. There is no doubt that Avital is a master of the mandolin and a joy to watch and hear.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was, without a doubt, the real test of Ms Jackson’s talent. This is a tough work. Properly played, it can be a grand emotional experience; played haphazardly, it can sink to histrionics. Ms Jackson's style of conducting could lead to an expectation that this would be a powerhouse performance, but it was not. There seemed to be little relationship between the intensity of her movements and the performance delivered by the ASO. The first movement began suitably growly, if a little loud, and proceeded on course with the theme presentation. The surprise orchestral outburst that announces the development section was a bit ragged. Even the wonderful ASO winds seemed uneven. The end of the movement had instances of unsteady entrances and ensemble. 

The second movement waltz was fine and the famous third-movement march was rousing. The fourth movement was where Ms Jackson faced her greatest challenge. The best interpretations of this music portray the idea that underlying depression is a core of anger. Ms Jackson got the depressive part, but the anger was simply not there. The finale was too loud, reducing the impact of expression of the composer’s metaphorical fading away.