As symphony orchestras struggle for survival in today’s world of financial insecurity and culture wars, filling seats with paying patrons is a holy grail of management. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has discovered the golden ticket by scheduling works of Leonard Bernstein, resulting in several sold-out concerts. Of course, symphony orchestras across the US have been busy scheduling and presenting the works of this near-mythic all-American composer in celebration of the centenary of his birth. Yet, in spite of his larger-than-life significance in the popular culture, Bernstein’s compositional body of work has not been frequently performed in concert halls over the decades since his passing. Maybe we find the myth more engaging than his actual music.

Johannes Moser © Sarah Wijzenbeek
Johannes Moser
© Sarah Wijzenbeek

German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser joined the ASO in a performance of the “Three Meditations” from Mass, arranged by Bernstein himself. The awkwardly-titled Mass was composed at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy as a memorial to her slain husband, and to mark the 1971-opening of the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC. This work of musical theater was not particularly well-received at its premiere, and has been rather infrequently performed subsequently. Maybe its failing is that it was so embedded in the US cultural turbulence of the 1960s and 70s that it seems dated and maybe even a bit quaint. Maybe it was Bernstein’s attempt to connect his music to pop cultural idioms that make it seem “so yesterday”. The “Meditations” showcase how Bernstein’s eclecticism muddled his music. For example, the second meditation contains many Middle Eastern-sounding musical references, which seem to defocus a piece so indebted to the Roman Catholic Mass, which of course has its own rich, but separate, musical history. Yet, without reference to the original musical theater piece, the “Meditations” are strong compositions in and of themselves. Moser’s 1694 Guarneri Cello has a dark melancholy sound that helped add a warm glow on Bernstein’s sometimes hard-edged music. Based on this performance, Moser seems less about performing theatrics, as in the past, and more about the music. His performance was impressive, with suitable drama when needed, and technical competence throughout. Conductor Robert Spano kept solid, reasonable tempi and the ASO performed admirably, providing a sensitive accompaniment to Moser. This was a fitting tribute to a composer whose mythic American persona we collectively seem to like more than his actual music.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” is one of the composer's most admired symphonies, probably second only to his Fifth. Debates continue on about the musical merits of the symphony, but there is little debate about its power to conjure up mental images of a genteel city whose day-to-day life was torn apart by the Nazi war machine and subsequent squelching of individual liberties under Soviet domination. It is a long, 75-minute work that was influenced by the works of Mahler and Bruckner. The first movement, Allegretto, is a not-so-subtle depiction of a beautiful Leningrad as the war machines gradually begins to rumble into the city and then to ravage it. A key feature of this movement is an incessant snare drum that foreshadows the horrors that followed. In this performance the drum was initially a bit too quiet, hardly being heard above the woodwinds, and even at its loudest still struggling to be heard above the rough and tormenting brass in the orchestral depiction of war tumult. Given the key motive role of the drum, some of the tension was dissipated by the imbalance. The second movement, Moderato, provided an opportunity for the violins to demonstrate a sweetly balanced tone, enhanced by a great ensemble. The third movement, Adagio, revisits the themes of the first movement, but more as a reverie of the city that was rather than a further depiction of its downfall. Here, the ASO woodwinds were remarkably clean and precise. The horns section also played beautifully. Atlanta Symphony Hall provides no acoustic cover to the brass, and, as a result, their primacy at the end was harrowing and tension-filled.

Music Director Robert Spano and the ASO provided a thrilling ride through both the American and Russian landscapes and unleashed potent performances of the music of admired favorite sons.