Carlos Kalmar, Music Director of the Oregon Symphony, conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a rather stentorian concert with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. Kalmar chose to have the orchestra seated in the configuration frequently used in the US, with cellos on stage left and violins on stage right. Since the acoustical shell in Symphony Hall was replaced a few years ago, the orchestra has been seated with the violas on stage right with the cellos to their right. Kalmar's re-arrangement has much to be said for it. The low strings never sounded better, at least judging from the sound on the left side of the house. In comparison to the "new configuration," the cellos sounded clear and strong.

Carlos Kalmar © Michael Jones
Carlos Kalmar
© Michael Jones
Franz von Suppe's Poet and Peasant Overture was first on the program. The introduction was a bit too legato, diminishing some of its punch, but Kalmar's beat in the waltz-like section was crisp and the ASO strings had a smooth, sweet sound. In his solos, Christopher Rex, principal cello, was on fine form, his cello never lost. Concertmaster David Coucheron also provided polished solos. Symphony Hall seemed a bit more reverberant than usual; it was especially noticeable when the sound decayed after the end of a full- orchestral forte. This may have been a function of the low attendance in the audience, since human bodies are good sound absorbers.

Next on the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. This was a return engagement with the ASO for the 35-year old Russian pianist, Yevgeny Sudbin. He is tall and slender and he has a  straightforward approach to playing the piano; that is, he is not given to performing histrionics – there was no head bobbing, eyes darting to the ceiling, or ecstatic grimaces. He simply plays, and plays quite well. It was a bit unusual to see a soloist using a score, but it did not detract from his musicality or technical brilliance, even when turning pages. There was little-to-no eye contact between the conductor and the soloist, yet the performance held together nicely. Sudbin's performance seemed a bit mechanical in the second movement Largo, where more rubato would have helped. His performances of the cadenzas in the first and third movements were technically brilliant. The usually excellent ASO woodwinds were standouts in the third movement Rondo. 

After the intermission, Maestro Kalmar addressed the audience about the final work on the program, Brahms' Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor as orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg. Kalmar noted that Schoenberg's desire was "to remain strictly in the style of Brahms, not going any further than he himself would have gone had be still been alive." Schoenberg thus reveals himself to be both a composer and a psychic, and Kalmar concluded that his goal was not met. The work sounds like Brahms, generously using the composer's darkly rich sonorities, such as the frequent paring of woodwinds and French horn. But every so often, Schoenberg's arrangement seems to go off the rails. He adds some discordant notes, or overly bright brass, or worse (or better, depending on your preferences) a xylophone, orchestra bells, a harp and tambourine. Some find this mash-up between the conservative Brahms and the rule-breaking Schoenberg to be full of humor; but for others, not-so-much.  The original and mashed-up version begins with an Allegro, followed by a second-movement Intermezzo. In the third movement Andante con moto, a melody so characteristic of Brahms is sandwiched between march-like sections. The first three movements in the Schoenberg arrangement sound like Brahms with only an occasional divergence in orchestration. However, the fourth movement Rondo alla zingarese. Presto is where Brahms becomes less and Schoenberg more noticeable. The very non-Brahmsian percussion section alone was a major departure. Sometimes the cymbal player would hold his instrument up several seconds before his entrance. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop because Brahms' style does not provide a hint of where a cymbal might be used, but that did not dissuade Schoenberg. Every section of the ASO played well and the French horns were very good. The rapid gypsy-inspired violin passages were brilliantly handled by the ASO strings. But Mr Kalman let or encouraged the orchestra to play everything fortississimo. There was little dynamic contrast and as a result, listener fatigue was inevitable.