The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s holiday classical music hiatus is finally over- Hallelujah!  Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Peter Oundjian was guest conductor for the first concert of the New Year. 

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol is a popular staple of the orchestral repertoire. However, if repetition leads to boredom it is indeed a shame, since it is flashy, brightly colored, sensual and brilliantly orchestrated. It’s a showpiece for every section of the orchestra, but it can also be simply an overpowering attention grabber. In this performance, Maestro Oundjian paid attention to every detail so that the entire work was nicely balanced. He was attuned to inner voicing that adds complexity, and he did so without sacrificing its overall structure. Subtle orchestral passages, often over looked in brasher performances, were not overpowered here (e.g. some of the guitar-like pizzicati in the cellos). Special recognition goes to principal clarinetist Laura Ardan’s solo passages in the Alborada that were breathtakingly and exuberantly virtuosic. Concertmaster David Coucheron’s solos were likewise brilliant. He played as if he was part of a group of Spanish street festival musicians rather than like being a soloist in a violin concerto, which added color, flare and subtlety to his performance. Principal cellist Christopher Rex’s playing was also strong. Oundjian breathed life into the ASO's performance and it was joyous.

Haydn’s familiar 1796 Trumpet Concerto in E flat major is an important work since it was the first to showcase Widinger’s Organisierte Trompete an early version of a trumpet using keys to expand its range and power. The modern trumpet, used in this performance, uses valves to alter the pitch, providing a more powerful and polished sound. Haydn’s concerto is full of wonderful scales, arpeggios, trills and octave leaps... enough to test any soloist’s skills. In this performance, principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson took center stage. The first movement Allegro was impressive, but tarnished slightly by some not-quite-on-the-mark intonation. Further, his instrument sounded too loud against the orchestra, which may be the fault of Symphony Hall’s acoustics that tend to spotlight soloists to the detriment of the orchestra. Stephenson demonstrated his lyrical skills effectively in the song-like passages of the Andante second movement. The final third movement Allegro was the most successful of the three showing much improved intonation and orchestra-soloist balance.

Bartók’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra is a cornerstone orchestral work from the 20th century and is one of the composer’s most frequently played pieces. It contains numerous examples of Hungarian folk music-inspired passages, some of which are quite dance-like. Bartók was an expert on the folk music of his homeland and his longing for it is apparent in the Concerto, written while the composer was exiled in New York. The Concerto is also a piece where the silences after orchestral climaxes can be as important as the music itself. If the silences are ragged and not controlled, the impact of the music is diminished. Maestro Oundjian showed himself to be a master, paying attention to dynamics while expecting (and receiving) wonderful ensemble from the musicians. The first movement Introduzione featured the growling force of the ASO low strings, the strength of the violins and the consistently fine playing of the woodwinds. Oundjian maintained a nice rhythmic flow, especially in the brass chorale-like passages.

The second movement Giuoco delle coppie was powered by the woodwinds, including some wonderfully accented playing by the bassoons, which managed to be both playful and slightly menacing. The playing of all the instrumental pairings, the “soloists” as conceived by the composer, were uniformly successful. The third movement Elegia was suitably dark but Oundjian kept it moving at an engaging tempo so as not to lose momentum. He also ensured that the timpani were an appropriate accent to, rather than driver of, the music. The fourth movement Intermezzo interrotto is again dominated by the marvelous playing by the woodwinds, including excellent performances here by the flute, oboe and English horn. The Finale had a controlled potency with its whirling themes and blaring brass. While all of the movements are played separately, Oundjian keep the breaks short, which added substantially to the music’s flow.

Conductor Oundjian provided fine interpretations of all three works, which were consistently well-played, beautifully paced, and finely controlled. This was an outstanding and nuanced program.