The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued its traversal of the music of Beethoven and Bernstein while adding a punch of contemporary music by Michael Kurth, ASO double bass player and composer. Kurth’s Fanfare for Orchestra was written in 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of Robert Spano's tenure as Music Director. This four-minute piece is brass and percussion driven, full of energy and color. In this performance, as the brass became louder, the sounds of the other sections of the orchestra receded; the violins were bowing furiously while hardly a note of their playing could be heard. It’s unclear if this was the composer’s intent or Maestro Spano’s direction. Kurth has grown tremendously as a composer over the past eight years and his recent works are a combination of lyrical themes contrasted with dissonant aggressiveness. The ASO is rightfully supportive of his work, which it will record in May. This should help ensure that this emerging talent receives a wider, well-deserved audience.

Robert McDuffie © Giovanni Canitano
Robert McDuffie
© Giovanni Canitano

Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato's “Symposium” is an extraordinary work, rarely performed. In fact, this is only the third time it has been heard in Atlanta since the orchestra’s founding in 1945. Fortunately, this centenary year has enabled audiences to be reintroduced (or, in some cases, introduced) to many pieces in this quintessentially American composer’s oeuvre. The Serenade is a lyrical piece for solo violin and orchestra inspired by Plato’s dialogues about the nature and purpose of love. Each of the five movements represents a philosopher’s views of the elusive subject matter, as well as commentary on the views presented by others. In a letter to his wife, Bernstein described the work as “funny modern music” but as our ears have been opened up to all kinds of diversity in music, the Serenade sounds pleasingly fresh, yet accessible.

The soloist was Robert McDuffie, a locally born artist who is popular not only for his musical talents but also as a result of his personal and professional ties to the musical life of Georgia. The first movement (Lento; Allegro marcato) begins with a lyrical statement by the violin, which spotlit the magnificent sound that McDuffie produces with his 1735-Guarneri del Gesu. The ensuing fugato struck a perfect balance between soloist and orchestra, which characterized the entirety of the performance. In the third movement Presto, McDuffie played the glissandi with grace and tonal purity. The fourth movement Adagio, with its scurrying energy, showcased the musicality and technical skill of both orchestra and soloist. The final movement (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace) is a lyrical tour de force that again gave McDuffie a chance to show off the glorious sound of his violin and it also provided a showcase for the renewed energy and vibrancy of the ASO cello section. McDuffie is not prone to physical histrionics when he plays, but his extraordinary performance was full of energy, warmth and technical mastery.

The final work on the program was Beethoven’s Third Symphony. This bold and popular work is played so frequently that it is not difficult imagining the orchestra playing it with the lights out and without a conductor, yet it must be approached with the greatest of respect. However, the first movement here was desultory; important dynamics, which add to the tension of the work, were glossed over. Horns were often too prominent, yet in the other movements they were impressive and demonstrated how much that section has improved over the past few years. In the second movement, Maestro Spano seemed to be attempting to guide the performance with intense gestures, but sometimes there seemed to be little relationship between his movements and what was actually produced. The finale's fugue was listless and turgid. This was a decidedly average, but acceptable, performance of this symphonic masterpiece, but it gave little insight into its power and nobility.  

***11