There was much to cheer about in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's first concert of the 2015-16 season. The program began traditionally with the audience singing the Damrosch arrangement of the The Star-Spangled Banner. This difficult-to-sing national anthem has a particularly devilish section beginning with the words "...and the rocket's red glare..." Coming to the aid of the patron-singers, the ASO Chorus' provided its stunning  power to make everything right. The evening's main event, though, was a performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection" under Music Director Robert Spano. This monumental symphony is an Atlanta favorite and the house was  nearly full. 

Robert Spano © Angela Morriss
Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss
The Second begins with the first theme growling out of the very well-prepared cellos and basses. The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, provides an opportunity for every section of the orchestra to show its versatility and technical skill. The reeds, woodwinds, and brass were especially brilliant and the violins were smooth and silky, successfully underscoring the music's turmoil and triumph. Near the end of the movement, when the main theme returned in the violins, they dug in and played with power and determination.

Throughout, Maestro Spano was in command of  the orchestral dynamics, which is essential for the music's dramatic impact. The second movement, marked Andante moderato, begins with a Ländler-like theme, and the ASO strings played elegantly and precisely. The woodwinds, reeds, and horns added their refined sound to the forte middle section. Marked  "with quietly flowing movement", the third movement was announced by menacing  timpani that set up the music's battle among gentleness, devilishness, hope and fear. The clarinets sounded heavy with irony and cynicism, highlighting the music's conflicts and the trumpets were brilliant and unrestrained. Noteworthy was Spano's  choice of a somewhat slow tempo here. The fourth movement, "Very solemn, but simple", introduces the Wunderhorn song sung by an alto, here by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor.  Her voice arose from near silence as she began "Oh little red rose." Her articulation was wonderful, and she has a restrained vibrato, but her voice is rather small. She gave a nuanced performance that portrayed the sadness and loneliness of Mahler's music. Concertmaster Coucheron played the violin solos brilliantly.

The final orchestral "cry of despair" in this movement was a perfect example of the power and color of a full symphony orchestra, which ASO musicians played with gusto and  precision. The fifth movement, marked "in Scherzo Tempo", is the grand finale scored by Mahler for full orchestra, chorus, soloists and an off-stage band that included percussion. The remote echo of that group was Mahler's musical equivalent of "crying in the wilderness". The music gradually transitions from despairing to triumphant, from the fear of death to the day of judgment and, as announced by the resplendent horns, resurrection. About halfway into the movement, Principal Flute Christina Smith and her colleagues delivered a warm and nuanced bridge to the choral portion of the symphony. Singing the first lines of Klopstock's poem “Resurrection”, the chorus entered so quietly it was as if it was arising from the ambient noise of the auditorium. This tightly controlled entrance did not diminish the chorus' famous precise articulation. The final verse sung by the Chorus is accompanied by an organ, which is only used in the grand and thunderous finale. 

At times, when singing with the chorus, Ms O'Connor's voice was lost, in part because of her restraint and her somewhat small voice. When Laura Tătulescu joined, she could be heard well over the full orchestra and chorus, but her vibrato was so broad that she lost articulation, which limited her ability to fully communicate the power of the lyrics. This was an auspicious way to begin the new season and the ASO musicians seem reinvigorated. Maestro Spano also showed that when he is inspired by the music, he is an outstanding interpreter.