Robert Spano is nothing if not adventuresome in his programming of contemporary "listenable" music and last night's concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured just such music. As the concert opener, he chose a work by young Israeli composer Avner Dorman titled Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, which was written and premiered in 2006. In this performance the percussion soloists were Tom Sherwood, formerly with the ASO and now Cleveland Orchestra, and Charles Settle, the ASO's Acting Principal percussionist.

Robert Spano © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano
© Andrew Eccles
For this work, a broad collection of over 20 percussion instruments are required, including  the goblet-shaped Middle Eastern darbuka. The first movement, “Spices”, begins with both soloists performing on the marimba, accompanied by pizzicato strings. Then, the focus shifts almost exclusively to two marimbas, with the orchestra providing occasional background orientalisms and accents. About half-way into the movement there were some wonderful drum-stand performances and the movement concluded with the marimbas being struck by the soloists' hands, with swirling figures being played by the strings. Dorman, in his notes, says that the movement “employs repetitive minimalism”, although that was not especially apparent. The percussion parts in “Spices” were so rich and complex that they could have been part of a stand-alone piece, which in fact they initially were. Unfortunately, the orchestral music in the first movement was reminiscent of that from travelogues that attempt to meld western and eastern music traditions, with middling success.

The second movement, titled “Perfumes” (Adagio), followed the first without break, and was characterized by tight integration between the orchestra and percussion. “Perfumes” had a rich, dark sound, featuring extended dialogue between the marimba and vibraphone. At times, the percussion simply accented the lyrical orchestral score while, at other times, it played its own extended melodic lines. “Toxins” (Presto energico) begins with extended drum-stand solos followed by rapid-fire exchanges among the percussion, piano and strings. The reeds followed providing additional oriental flavor, which transitioned to extended more drum stand passages. There were also occasional flashes from the Arabic tambourine and the darbukas. About halfway into the movement, the xylophone, marimba and piano played in unison, providing an unusual but pleasing effect. Struck metal strips added a sort of lightning-in-the-desert effect. The music ended with the full-orchestra blaring, while the percussion soloists played exuberantly on the drum-stands.

Sherwood and Settle, who appeared to enjoy performing together, were technically brilliant and very high energy. Since both percussionists faced the audience, they were unable to see Spano, who nevertheless managed to hold everything together. In contrast to his usual conducting style, he was also quite high energy. Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins! is appealing and likeable and the flash of Dorman's percussion writing more than made up for the occasional tendency of the orchestral music to sound like a movie score. This is exactly the kind of contemporary music that Spano champions and conducts well.

The second work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5 in E minor. It is challenging for any conductor to make this so-frequently-heard music sound fresh and new again. Maybe the most that can be expected is a competent execution, which this performance occasionally was. The introduction of the first movement's main theme was played quite legato, yet when the theme reappeared it was unexpectedly sharper and crisper.  The second movement plodded a bit, but the famous lush horn solo was played appealingly by Brice Andrus. As the main melody was handed off within the orchestra, each section played beautifully. Spano's interpretation compressed the movement's dynamics, which also tended to compress its emotional impact. Even the surprising forte restatement of the main theme near the end of this movement seemed reserved.

Appropriate to a waltz,  the third movement was elegant and light, with some outstanding playing by the reeds and flutes. The final movement was less than satisfying, due in part to the continued timidity of the dynamics. Spano seemed to hold back the brass that are so important to the color and excitement of the grand finale. Tchaikovsky frequently used the horns, reeds and low brass to accent notes and beats. If these accents are played too loudly, they become distractions and the main themes are weakened. As a result, the music can sound disjointed, and the rich melodic line can suffer which, unfortunately, was the case in this performance. That added to the compressed dynamics made this an uninspired Fifth.