Atlanta, arguably the cultural hub of the southeast United States rarely hosts touring symphony orchestras. When one does visit, it usually attracts a large audience and this was the case with the touring London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. The concert was held at Emory University’s 825-seat Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the acoustics of which are as good as can be found in the Atlanta area. The auditorium has a tall, shoebox design with minimal balcony overhang and it can be tuned to adapt to performance needs. It also has a large stage that can accommodate various size ensembles, including a full symphony orchestra.

Khatia Buniatishvili
© Esther Haase

The RPO was founded by the legendary Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946 and is one of London’s five main orchestras. Its fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, but judging by its concert here, it is again on a strong artistic footing.

Jonathan Dove’s Sunshine began the program; it was written for an ensemble slightly larger than the average chamber orchestra. It is a fairly short work that begins with flute flutterings, accompanied by staccato strings. About halfway through, the timpani interrupts followed by more staccato notes in the strings and brass. It is pleasant, listenable music, but not overwhelmingly original. It could easily be confused with the music of Michael Torke,  a contemporary of Dove’s. Nevertheless, the strings of the RPO were precise and golden sounding. In the final half of the piece, the brass section was featured but it was never overwhelming; the timpani strikes were sharp and clear. It was apparent that the hall’s luxurious acoustics suited the RPO’s refined sound.

After more musicians came on stage, pianist Khatia Buniatishvili and Maestro Wigglesworth took their places for an unusual performance of the great Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto. Ms Buniatishvili approached the introduction to the first movement with suitable ponderousness, yet as the performance progressed, the piano tended to blend into the sound of the orchestra, as if she sees this boldly romantic concerto as one of introspection, reflection, and introversion. On occasion, she would reshape phrases in ways that made the familiar unfamiliar. In the lyrical second movement, the bassoon and piano have a small but important duet; here, because of the unorthodox phrasing of the piano, the two instruments were out-of-sync, sounding rather dissonant. The cadenza was also idiosyncratic with unusual emphases, timing and phrasing. Throughout this movement, Ms Buniatishvili played rather softly, keeping the audience rapt; there was hardly a rustle of paper or cough to be heard. Wigglesworth created powerful momentum in the final movement, but again the piano solo seemed subdued. In response to several curtain calls, Ms Buniatishvili played Debussy’s Clair de lune as an encore. It was the slowest, quietest version imaginable –  quirky, yet oddly affecting. Again, Ms Buniatishvili seemed to have the audience mesmerized. She obviously does not shy away from playing well-known music in her own interpretive style. For one concert it was intriguing, but one has to wonder about its long-term wearability.

The program ended with Sibelius’ grand Second Symphony, which was written for a large orchestra, and even more members of the RPO were on the Schwartz stage, with still space to spare. Maestro Wigglesworth led a notable performance the truly demonstrated the glories of the sound of a fine modern symphony orchestra in a beautiful acoustic space that has just the right amount of reverberation. Each instrumental section benefited from the clarity of sound. For example, the woodwinds (a bit darker sounding than that of their US counterparts) played so precisely that it was as if only one was playing; trombones and trumpets were refined and well-controlled, and the timpani was as clear as the proverbial bell. The violins and cellos had a very polished sound and were remarkable in their ensemble, the horns were relaxed and confident. With the RPO playing at its loudest, the sound was thrilling yet never piercing or overwhelming. It is difficult to know how this symphony performance could have been better.

As an encore, the RPO played Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture, which was a joyous and rousing way to finish an evening of great music-making.