This week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra program concert was designed to show how a pair of its most talented musicians has the “right stuff” to fill the stage with grand performances and memorable music. Concertmaster, David Coucheron, soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto, was appointed in the 2010-11 season and has improved the playing and sound of the ASO strings. As a result, his performance of the Brahms was highly anticipated.

Robert Spano © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano
© Andrew Eccles
Under music director Robert Spano the introduction to the first movement was appropriately rich and dark, with especially fine playing in the horns and strings. Because of their precision and silky tone, it was the best the first violins have sounded in recent memory. Coucheron’s first-movement entrance was strong, and throughout his performance he demonstrated ample technical skill, save for a few harsh bowings in some of the many double-stops. In the first-movement cadenza, his performance lacked subtlety and a certain musicality. Sometimes technical brilliance substituted for warmth and inflection; it was as if Coucheron was so focused on playing the notes accurately, he strayed away from playing them musically.

In contrast, his performance in the second movement Adagio was warm and beautiful. He played lyrically, with wonderful vibrato and a beautiful timbre; his playing never lapsed into harshness. In the Allegro third movement, he seemed more comfortable with the music’s technical and musical demands and, as a result, he turned in a solid performance.

Throughout, Maestro Spano provided sympathetic orchestral support, with only an occasional lack of balance, for example, when the woodwinds overshadowed the solo violin. Overall this was a technically proficient performance that just fell a bit short of grand music making. Coucheron played an encore of Bach’s Chaconne from the Second Partitia, dedicated to the memory of Carl David Hall, the ASO’s late principal piccolo and flute. It was simultaneously somber and grand.

The program next featured favorite son Michael Kurth, an ASO bassist and composer. His A Thousand Words was commissioned by the ASO and it was receiving its world première. Prior to the performance, a brief video interview between Maestro Spano and Kurth effectively demonstrated the composer’s wry sense of humor and his mindfulness of the power of words, both of which influence the themes and compositional style of his works. The first movement, which the composer says represents a sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, is titled “Above: Radiance”. The spectacle of a sunrise has been depicted musically many times before ( e.g., Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra), but never with quite the awesome majesty summoned by Kurth in this grand crescendo. It began slowly and softly with the violins, followed by gradual addition of various instruments, stretching the work’s dynamic range and color. The inclusion of harp, celesta and gong lend sparkle and drama to early morning.

The second movement, “Beneath: My Sinister Groove Machine”, is an homage to an Icelandic cliff and a sloss furnace in Alabama. It begins rather mysteriously and builds into an industrial motif driven by a cowbell and snare drum that slowly devolves into a period of reflection. A large percussion section provided rich colors and rhythmic drive. There was no mistaking when the piece was depicting either Iceland or Alabama. “Within”, the third movement, seemed less programmatic, and more impressionistic and introspective. It began as a gentle mix of oboe, bells and harp that then builds tension through layering of sound. At times, the music was reminiscent of Copland’s Americana style, Hanson’s neo-romanticism, and Hovhaness’ spiritual quasi-minimalism.

The final movement “Beyond: We Will Puncture the Canopy of Night” is inspired by the flight of birds, with the strings providing drive and melody and the brass provide soaring accompaniment. At times, this movement had Respighi-like characteristics and its big, brassy climax was thunderous. This work is outstanding – at once colorful, dynamic and intriguing.  In spots it sounded familiar, but it is new, fresh and exciting. The orchestration was lavishly colorful and it highlighted the skills of each orchestral section, with Maestro Spano coaxing a stellar performance from the ASO. In Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, Spano and the ASO performed with great precision and ensemble. Each section of the orchestra was cleanly highlighted, clarifying the structure and orchestration of Strauss’ humorous work. Justin Bruns, ASO associate concertmaster, played the violin solo with aplomb and Laura Ardan, principal clarinet, made Till’s shrill laughter palpable. Strauss’ work is just the kind of music that this conductor and orchestra do so very well together.