The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has sold out several concerts in past weeks and is expected to do the same in the next. At the same time, the orchestra is experiencing several major personnel changes, including the announced departure of Music Director Robert Spano in 2021. Part of what is driving the ASO’s current success has been some shrewd programming, some outstanding guest conductors and great soloists. This weekend’s concerts stayed on the same trajectory. However, after intermission at Saturday’s Symphony Hall concert, Assistant Conductor Stephen Mulligan had to step in for the ailing Spano, and he also led Sunday’s entire program at the ASO’s University of Georgia concert.   

A work by composer and ASO bass player Michael Kurth began the program. His music has struck a chord with the local audience and with Maestro Spano. Kurth’s Everything Lasts Forever was premiered here in 2013 and its return is most welcome. Drawing inspiration from graffiti that the composer admires, the piece is in three relatively short sections. The first is a rhythmically complex movement titled “Toes”, which sounds like a melding of a waltz and a march. The second, “Bird Sing Love”, begins with a dark celesta-violin duet that eventually becomes a fully developed yet restrained statement by the full orchestra. The final brass-dominated section, “We Have All the Time in the World”, is a joyous outpouring of sound that is colorful and engaging and has a fanfare-like finale. Kurth’s music is neither cold nor remote; it is complex, humorous, well-orchestrated and instantly understandable – it appeals immediately. The ASO played the music of their colleague with vigor and energy and Maestro Mulligan led a convincing, polished performance. 

The ASO continues it musical traverse of the works of Leonard Bernstein during this 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The 1942 Symphony no.1, Jeremiah” is the first of Bernstein’s non-Broadway-centric music to be played by the orchestra. It is a work for large orchestra based upon the Hebrew text from the Book of Lamentations. The first movement, “Prophecy”, contains themes that sound like the musical equivalent of wailing and suffering, here played with burning intensity by the ASO strings. The second movement, “Profanation”, sounds like Bernstein drank from the same Middle Eastern well as those who wrote soundtracks for the Hollywood Biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. The final movement, “Lamentation”, features a mezzo-soprano (here Jennifer Johnson Cano) singing the words of Jeremiah’s despair at the dissolution of Jerusalem. The symphony is affecting, even while sounding like the work of a recent academic, which is, of course, what it is. The ASO delivered a driving, solid and tight performance, much to the credit of Mulligan. Johnson Cano has a strong stage presence and while singing, she acted out the torment and anguish of the text. Her voice is full and warm, but her enunciation of the Hebrew text became a bit mushy at the top of her range and at full volume. The balance between the orchestra and the mezzo was nearly perfect. 

The Mexican-born Jorge Federico Osorio was the soloist for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, “Emperor”. This most popular of piano concertos was crisply and transparently played by both the soloist and the orchestra. Balances were nearly perfect. The first movement could have benefited from a bit more rubato in softer passages in order to draw a bit more contrast in the music’s structure and dynamics, but nevertheless, Osorio gave a splendid performance. The second-movement Adagio was lush, with great playing by the strings and woodwinds. Osorio’s playing of the transition between the second and third movements was particularly effective; the phrasing that he chose made the point that this rather short passage actually has two functions: to provide anticipation of the third movement and to say farewell to the second. Too often it is played just as an anticipatory passage. Osorio’s precision never lets a phrase or chord trail off to get lost in the sound of the orchestra. This attention to detail added greatly to the richness of his performance. 

Maestro Mulligan provides a very visible beat with his right baton-wielding hand, which is frequently raised almost to the full extent of his arm. Throughout he was a fraction of a beat ahead of the music so as to provide cueing with his left hand. He was engaging to watch and he coaxed a stellar performance from the ASO and the wonderful guest artists. This was a great opportunity for Mulligan to introduce himself to Atlanta audiences and he took full advantage of it.