Every year, September’s arrival marks the beginning of the new concert season for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. But this is no ordinary concert year in Atlanta, marking the milestone of the orchestra's 75th anniversary. The ASO was born in a town that had not yet morphed into today's Atlanta, an economic and cultural powerhouse of the southeastern United States. As the city has become prominent, so too has the ASO; it is arguably the pre-eminent cultural force in the region. Over the past several years, it has found increased financial stability and artistic strength. It is notable this season that the ASO has added six new musicians, two of whom are principals (cello and second violin). The infusion of young new talent is added reason to celebrate this anniversary.

Joshua Bell © Bill Phelps
Joshua Bell
© Bill Phelps

With Music Director Robert Spano on the podium, the concert began with the annual playing of the Damrosch arrangement of the national anthem. Next was Wagner’s Act 1 Prelude to Die Meistersinger, which might seem like an odd choice with which to begin, until one realises the Maestro Spano is programming all three acts of Wagner’s monumental Tristan und Isolde in the last three concerts of the season. The prelude, then, is doing a bit of Wagnerian foreshadowing. Because the prelude calls for a very large orchestra, the Symphony Hall stage teemed with musicians. The orchestra played beautifully, with precision and restraint, the brass seeming less prominent than in the past. Nevertheless, the sound sometimes overwhelmed the acoustic space. The fortes were indeed loud – a reminder that Symphony Hall acoustics can be troublesome and lead to nettlesome sound-smearing.

One of the ASO’s great accomplishments over the past few decades has been to introduce and support the music of contemporary composers. Spano has created “The Atlanta School”, a group of composers who have partnered with the ASO to achieve both performances and recordings of their music. Jennifer Higdon is a member of this group and her 2002 Concerto for Orchestra was next on the program. This five-movement work provides opportunities for not only principal players but for each section to be featured playing technically demanding sections. The movements are only numbered, signaling that the music is without a program. Béla Bartók’s similarly styled and titled Concerto for Orchestra seems to have influenced at least the first movement of Higdon's work; melodic and compositional references occur, such as chorale-like passages in the brass. It begins in the percussion, followed by the strings, then winds and then brass. Finally, all sections play together in a tumult of sound. The second movement is more string focused, with introductory pizzicato passages followed by bowed, almost lyrical passages. The slow third movement is colorful while the fourth redirects the spotlight to the percussion, including bowed marimbas that add eeriness. The last movement is big, brassy and technically demanding, all played beautifully. Ms Higdon appeared on stage with Maestro Spano and the ASO to enjoy the audience’s appreciation and recognition of her work.

Violinist Joshua Bell has the distinction of being one of the most recognized talents in classical music today. Wherever he performs, he fills seats, and so much so in Atlanta that the ASO opening concert is scheduled three times over the weekend. There is no doubt that Mr Bell lives up to expectations; he is virtuosic, with immense technical prowess and strong musicianship. He performed the Henryk Wieniawski's Violin Concerto no. 2 in D minor, a very popular Romantic-era work, lush, melodic and full of technical fireworks. The orchestra is slimmed down here, which nicely suited the acoustics. Soloist and orchestra were well balanced and Bell’s command of his sweet-sounding violin was stunning, his bowing silky smooth. As if to acknowledge that Bell would be called back for an encore, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen was programmed and followed quickly after only a few curtain calls after the concerto. Based on Roma themes, Zigeunerweisen begins with a majestic introduction and ends with a very flashy and technically difficult czardas-like section. The violinist must employ all manner of virtuosic techniques, which Bell handled easily and with great intensity. After his first exit from the stage, Bell returned without a violin in hand, signaling the audience not to expect more. He received the audience’s warm appreciation, while Maestro Spano showed his to the ASO musicians.

Truly, the 75th anniversary season of the ASO is off and running in a most auspicious and grand way.

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