Two cornerstones of Russian music and a third not-often-heard work were featured in this weeks’ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra program. Maestro Cristian Măcelaru, conductor in-residence of the Philadelphia Orchestra, began the program with Stravinsky’s 1947 version of Pétrouchka. Măcelaru began with a very precise introduction in the cellos and continued on to create an incredibly transparent performance of this wonderful ballet music. Various sections of the orchestra create each of the story’s characters and action, and each section was sharply focused to ensure that there was no doubt when a character was in the spotlight. 

“The Shrovetide Fair” tableau was exuberant and energetic, but never frenzied. Măcelaru slightly slowed the music related to the Moor, making it mysterious and menacing. Every section performed flawlessly, from the burnished sound of the violins, to the unusually crisp French horns, and the nicely articulated winds. The difficult trumpet passages were played brilliantly, and concertmaster David Coucheron’s solos were affecting. The piano and celesta combination was highlighted, not only by their placement to the left of the orchestra, but also because of Măcelaru’s dedication to transparent sound. The important contrabassoon punctuations in the second tableau were extraordinarily precise and rich. Măcelaru must be credited for ensuring the orchestra’s precise ensemble, and even more important, for creating the unmuddied orchestral soundscape that help to create this performance’s transparency. It is as if he brought some of the fabulous Philadelphia sound to Atlanta.

Soloist Karen Gomyo’s performance of Tchaikovsky's familiar Violin Concerto was a revelation. It is refreshing to hear a version of a warhorse that enables the listener to experience it as if for the first time. This was an idiosyncratic performance, but in the best way imaginable. Her performance of the first movement cadenza was startling, holding a note here, speeding up a phrase there, all the while having a finely articulated dynamic range.  Adding clean multiple stops, precise pizzicati and controlled bowing, enabled her to create a virtuosic and memorable performance. She was brilliant technically and – more importantly – she was brilliant musically.

The second movement Canzonetta was sweet and affecting without ever becoming maudlin or self-indulgent. Initially, it seemed that she had lost power because she began the movement pianissimo; however, this was a smart choice because from that quietude grew a tender performance that was perfectly attuned to the music’s gentility. The third movement finale began aggressively, the performance gaining momentum and strength, showcasing Gomyo’s technical and musical wizardry. Throughout the piece, the timbre of her 1703 Stradivarius was rich and golden. In her deft hands it never sounded shrill, steely or harsh, in part due to her great bowing technique. Maestro Măcelaru deserves credit for leading a wonderfully sensitive orchestral accompaniment that was always in balance with Gomyo.  Tchaikovsky’s compositions frequently employ accent notes, often in the horns, which can be distracting if played too forte. Măcelaru saw to it that they were played appropriately, without undermining the work’s musical integrity.

The final work was Balakirev’s Islamay, originally written for the piano and orchestrated here by Sergei Lyapunov. It begins loudly and colorfully, but it is heavily scored. Unfortunately the ASO was not totally together so the music seemed jumbled. There are interludes of beautiful Slavic-inflected folk music that are catchy and enjoyable, played remarkably by the ASO winds. Lyapunov’s ending is big and brassy, with the full orchestra blaring, including some exciting passages for an enhanced percussion section. Except for the shaky start, they presented this showy piece with intensity and strength.