At the season opener of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, patrons were greeted with chic new black lobby walls and fresh full-color photos of the orchestra's musicians. Now that the adjacent Alliance Theater remodel is nearly complete, the Woodruff Arts Center may be turning its attention to sprucing up the nearly six-decade-old Symphony Hall. Unfortunately, the program for the opening concert was not as fresh as the new lobby paint. It featured two works by two flamboyantly Romantic Russian composers; both are extremely popular, as evidenced by a nearly full house.

The 1901-Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor featured guest soloist, multi-award winning Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein. The concerto was finished after the composer completed hypnotherapy/ psychotherapy for depression, so Rachmaninov dedicated the work to his therapist. The piece famously begins with a solo piano intoning bell-like passages, followed by the entry of the orchestra which eventually states the main theme.  The first movement is awash in themes that are tossed from one section of the orchestra to another while the piano is, at times, playing arpeggios as the orchestra develops themes, and, at other times, develops the themes itself. This interplay is complex and leads to a powerful climax. The second movement is a fantasia built around a sentimentally beautiful melody. As the theme mutates and develops, it soars, and Gerstein soared with it; yet, when required, his playing was elegantly subtle and sweet. The rousing third movement contains two gorgeous Romantic themes, the second of which may be the composer’s most famous. The closing of the concerto was triumphant and breathtaking.

Rachmaninov was a great orchestrator, and this work provides an opportunity for all sections of the orchestra to shine. The woodwinds and strings were golden and polished; however, on occasion, the horns sounded a bit hesitant and unsure.

Gerstein is a master of this music, and Robert Spano and the ASO are masters of the Romantic repertoire. Unfortunately, Symphony Hall acoustics being what they are, the piano was occasionally overshadowed by the orchestra. When considered separately, the ASO’s volume did not seem too loud nor the piano’s too soft, but the hall’s acoustics become muddy in forte passages, causing the piano’s sound to be overwhelmed. 

Gerstein and Spano played an encore of Rachmaninov’s Valse for four hands. Judging by body language, Gerstein seemed most at ease with and enthusiastic about the music, and the sparkling performance ended in a surprisingly ragged fashion.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a work that showcases the composer’s melodic gifts, as well as his less than stellar abilities with structure. The four-movement work contains a melody that is employed through, providing a consistent musical thread. The first movement begins with a rather dark presentation in the woodwinds, which then gets picked up by the full orchestra. The main theme, while insistent, is brighter and the entire movement is bold and attention-grabbing (or seeking). The second movement is a long ramble, and it contains one of the composer’s most popular melodies. It also employs two false endings (or beginnings, as the case may be) sometimes leading patrons to begin applauding before the movement is over. Spano maintained a strong grip on dynamics throughout. The third movement is a delightful waltz-like affair that lifts the mood of the piece and the fourth movement is, at times, agitated and, at others, lyrical. The finale is rousing, complete with brass unleashed.  

This was a solid performance of the Fifth. The woodwinds were spectacular and Spano kept the brass from overwhelming the finale. The horns, so important in this work, were better than in the piano concerto, but nevertheless had some intonation issues.  

It’s good to have the ASO back providing strong performances that keep their audience happy. A solid start to the season.