After a long holiday hiatus, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra returned to playing classical music under the direction of guest conductor Ludovic Morlot. Maestro Morlot has been receiving good reviews for his work as music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra so there were great expectations! The heavily Vienna-oriented program began with Johann Strauss II's Overture to Die Fledermaus. This very familiar work began most promisingly with some nice woodwind detail that is easy to overlook. With good rhythmic drive and accents, the waltz sections of the overture were enjoyable, if not totally compelling. All in all, it was a solid opener. 

Unfortunately this was the highlight of the evening's performance, as it went downhill from there. Erich Korngolds' Straussiana was next on the program. Written in the 1920s, it was composed in response to an American music publisher's request for new pieces for school orchestras to play and Korngold responded with an arrangement of several little-known Strauss waltzes. Based on Korngold's remix, it would be easy to dismiss Strauss' talent if one didn't know better. This fluffy piece of music fell flat here. Morlot seemed to struggle with making the waltz themes light, interesting or engaging and the pleasant pizzicato introduction was ragged.

Due to the illness of the  soloist, the Korngold Cello Concerto was replaced on the program with three of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (Nos. 1, 3 and 10). After Straussiana, hopes for some excitement in the Brahms pieces were quickly dashed. Lacking dynamic and rhythmic contrasts, and orchestral color, the dances lacked fire, excitement, and exuberance. Fortunately in No. 3, the woodwinds played with well-constructed  inflection that added some irony to an otherwise leaden performance.

The  principal players of the violin, viola, and cello sections were wonderfully transparent and lyrical at the beginning of Wiener Blut which followed. Subsequently, however, the orchestra played the notes without much grace and charm. Deftly applied accelerandos, decelerandos and fermatas that can add a lilting quality to a waltz were missing. Maybe the sound of the televised New Year's Eve concert by Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic, featuring so many examples of how waltzes should be played, still lingered in the ear's memory, making this performance sound meager and pale by comparison.

The final work was Brahms' Symphony no. 3 in F major. The first movement began impressively, but that energy was dissipated by the time the second theme appeared. There was no drama, no urgency. The violins played but they did not have that dark warm sound so important to Brahms' music. It also appeared that the larger and more energetic Mr Merlot's beat was, the slower everything became. In the second movement, the woodwinds and horn played beautifully together. The third movement begins with a melancholy theme in the cellos. Unfortunately, Morlot had the orchestra seated with the cellos to his right at the front of the stage. This sometimes causes the sound of the cellos to be lost in Symphony Hall, which indeed happened after their beautifully crafted introduction.

It was a gift that Brice Andrus, principal horn, was inspiring in his lyricism, which contrasted with deficiency of lushness in this  performance. Also, principal oboe Elizabeth Koch Tiscone's playing was a lesson in how to use sophisticated articulation to wring the most out of Brahms' music. The final movement was the strongest of the evening; it was robust and demonstrated the ASO's high-level of technical skill but it still lacked a compelling quality.

Brahms was a master of structure, melody and development. For it to be successful, a performance should attend to all of these characteristics in equal measure. Further, because of the thickness of the orchestration, the overall arc of the piece must be carefully drawn in order to avoid a muddle of music. This performance lacked that focus so that it often wallowed in dense sound, but without a propulsive direction. It just meandered.