“Vive la France” was the title for this weekend’s pair of concerts featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The program was made up of two rarely heard works and one staple of the Impressionist repertoire. This concert marked a return visit for guest conductor Jun Märkl, who was last on the ASO podium in November 2017. The 57-year old German-born conductor has impressed audiences here in the past and his return was highly anticipated.  

The Benvenuto Cellini overture is an amalgam of major themes from Berlioz's opera, which is a fictionalized account of the life of the Renaissance Florentine sculptor and goldsmith. The opera itself is rarely performed, and the last Atlanta performance of the overture was in 1989. Yet, as the opening work for a symphonic concert, its fanfare-like introduction surely gains an audience’s attention. Märkl unleashed the brass choir in the first few bars but easily moved onto the lyrical passages, featuring precise and smooth playing by the violins and woodwinds. When the music returns to high energy and grand orchestral color, Märkl again let the brass take flight in a brilliantly controlled ending: a grand performance of an imaginative, colorful, and complex work.

Henri Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto no. 5 in A minor is a short and technically dazzling concerto of three movements, played without break. Its most recent Atlanta performance was in 1974, which begs the question why it's taken so long to reappear. The soloist in this performance was 35-year old Israeli-born Giora Schmidt. During his lifetime, Vieuxtemps was a highly regarded composer and violinist, although his career was cut short by paralyzing illness. He toured extensively as a soloist, including appearances throughout Russia and the United States. This particular concerto was written as a competition piece for the Brussels Conservatory, and its technical difficulties surely speak to the high quality of the school’s students. Schmidt's violin has a nicely balanced timbre – neither too bright nor too dark – and his technique is formidable. There are two cadenzas, with that in the first movement being quite a technical challenge. Here, Schmidt demonstrated his great mastery of the violin, save a very few bowing and intonation issues. The second cadenza was played nearly perfectly. The next movement, only about three minutes long, is wonderfully Romantic, replete with soaring violin melodies, which were played convincingly. The final movement, only about two minutes in length, again gave Schmidt the opportunity to display his formidable technical skill. Märkl and the ASO provided an impeccable accompaniment; never once was the soloist buried under the sound of the orchestra.  

Ravel’s 1912 ballet Daphnis et Chloé is his longest work, lasting about 55 minutes, but has a forward momentum that propels the music so that it seems shorter than its actual length. It has only four leitmotifs that appear throughout the work in various guises and orchestrations, spotlighting Ravel’s ability to develop themes to keep them fresh. The music is also full of lush harmonies and colorful instrumentation. Märkl specializes in the music of French Impressionism, and it showed in this highly sophisticated, rich performance. There are many solo passages that the principals played with aplomb. Ravel included a myriad of percussion instruments in his ballet, and the eight percussionists made the sound of their instruments integral to the music, rather than as separate, distinct or apart from the totality of the work.  Märkl transformed the ASO into a proper sounding Impressionist ensemble – transparent, light, yet well controlled. Ravel’s masterpiece received a nuanced, first-rate performance, stunningly strong.