Early in my career, the joke was “Here comes the boss... look busy!” The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Music Director, Robert Spano, returned last evening to conduct his Orchestra. Not only did the ASO musicians look busy, but they played superbly, sounding ever so much like a “world-class ensemble”, an appellation to which they aspire. With Spano on the podium, it seems to have a focus and shared sensibility about the music being played, and all sections of the orchestra are on their best musical behavior. The Maestro seems to inspire a respect and an obligation to perform well among the musicians that sometimes is not always apparent with guest conductors. Furthermore, Spano never seems to provide less than a fully competent interpretation of most works, and often he is inspired, as in this performance.  

The piano soloist in the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto was 36-year-old Juho Pohjonen, a native of Finland, in his third solo turn with the ASO. This frequent pairing may explain why conductor and pianist seemed so in sync. The first movement of the concerto, which is about half of the length of the entire work, is a wonderful example of the composer’s ability to create a theme and develop it so that it returns in various creative and compelling ways. The second movement is a heartfelt and deeply moving dialogue between the strings of the orchestra and piano. The third movement arises directly out of the second without break and develops into a bold and energetic rondo section. Pohjonen is not prone to histrionics and he coaxed a wonderfully clean and clear sound from the piano, which underscores the music’s structure. His playing was refined and controlled, without producing a large sound which was not required in this elegant and refined performance. The soloist and conductor were thoughtful in their choice of tempi in the second movement; they resisted the temptation to slow it down simply to heighten drama and melancholy. The finale was sharp and generated plenty of excitement, but it was never excessive, in keeping with the thoughtful and greatly appreciated restraint of this performance. As an encore, Mr Pohjonen played the challenging and whimsical Butterfly from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces

The final work on the program was Mahler’s First Symphony, sometimes called “Titan”, a title quickly discarded by the composer. It’s difficult today to fully appreciate the effect the first performance of the symphony had on Austrian audiences in 1888. Mahler originally described the work as a symphonic poem in two parts, but discarded the Blumine movement to create a traditional four-movement symphonic form. Mahler wanted his music to portray events of daily life – the sounds of nature, bird calls – yet by 1900 the composer chose to eliminate any programmatic descriptions for the symphony because he felt that by having them, he was misleading the public. At the time, critics and audiences were perplexed by this new approach to the symphony and some wanted the notes, others did not. The score calls for a very large orchestra, and the orchestra was augmented with contract musicians to bring it to the required size. As has been the case in other programs, the ASO under Maestro Spano seems to thrive on Mahler. In this performance, every section of the orchestra was focused, intonation was almost perfect, and the precision of playing, especially in the strings, was remarkable. The extraordinary woodwinds were exceptionally strong, as was the brass section, including six French horns. The off-stage trumpets at the beginning of the symphony were well-rehearsed. Spano paid careful attention to each movement’s dynamics as well as those of the entire work so that the overall arc of the music was never lost.

This was a grand performance of a grand work by an orchestra and conductor that proved they are a grand Mahler ensemble. This may have been their best concert so far this season.