The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s hand was again in Music Director Robert Spano’s glove this week... and the two fit together quite nicely. The ASO and its maestro seem to bring out the best in each other.

The first piece on the program was by Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton, who has had an association with the orchestra for over three decades, beginning with his tenure as composer-in-residence from 1985-88. Different River bears little resemblance to other rivers in the classical repertoire. It's no meandering, powerful Vltava or lilting Blue Danube. Singleton’s river lacks their structure, theme development and cohesion. It begins with some drop-like sounds in the percussion and a few thumps on the timpani, almost as if a river is being born from raindrops and thunder. But from there, the piece becomes more like a stream-of-consciousness rather than a river-of-water. It is episodic, without readily apparent themes, a series of musical phrases with little overall relationship, save for colorful orchestration. It is frequently dissonant and rarely lyrical. There are occasional chorale-like brass passages, and all sections of the orchestrated are featured from time-to-time during its 25-minute length. This river cannot be admired for its slow and powerful strength; rather it just keeps moving forward with little time for the listener’s reflection on its journey. Different River was premiered by the ASO about four years ago and, like many new pieces, it is always possible it will sound better and be more appreciated on second hearing. Unfortunately this was not the case. Nevertheless, Maestro Spano deserves kudos for his continuing support of contemporary composers and his willingness to program their works.

Louis Lortie tackled the ever-popular Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor with gusto. His grand opening flourishes clearly announced that he was on stage to provide a big performance, which he did throughout the entire work. During the first movement Allegretto, he produced a few idiosyncratic accents that added a few surprises to a work that has been heard so often that it seems beyond surprise. Lortie played the cadenzas with power and authority. The second movement Adagio was an opportunity for Lortie and the orchestra to show how well they could play together lyrically, and they did not disappoint. The outer sections of the third movement were played with great finesse, with the intervening quiet interlude receiving a very warm interpretation from principal flute Christina Smith. The ending was grand, save for the final few chords where the piano and orchestra were not exactly together. Throughout the performance, Lortie’s left hand would occasionally rise up from the keyboard, almost as if he was going to conduct from the piano, although likely it is just a performing affectation. The Grieg is one of the most popular of piano concertos and Lortie provided an audience-pleasing performance. 

Spano and the ASO seem to love performing Sibelius. The orchestra’s warm, dark woodwind section excel at portraying the quiet, sometimes lonely, but always dramatic sound pictures of Sibelius. Polished string sections and powerful brass give it the right amount of heft and depth to make a convincing performance of these late-Romantic masterpieces. In this performance of the Second Symphony, Maestro Spano seemed to throw his whole body into conducting this work, as he cued, cajoled, controlled, and otherwise demanded the most from the orchestra. This performance was outstanding, in part because Spano never lost touch with the grand arc of the music from beginning to end. Indeed there were captivating passages, such as the beautifully shaped passages for the oboe, flute, bassoon and clarinet in the first movement, and the wonderful, dark bassoon and horn passages in the second movement. And the low strings in the fourth movement finale were spine-tingling in their intensity. Yet Spano never let these wonderful individual passages detract from providing a cohesive vision of the entire work. There is no doubt that Spano has a great affinity and love for this music and he managed to bring the orchestra to the peak of its capability in this excellent performance.