A few years ago, Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, guest conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a concert that was best described as unremarkable.  But, as is said, “second time is a charm” and so it was with Maestro Morlot and the ASO this week. Marketing for the concert said that the program represented composers who are “cheeky, irrepressible, brazen and poetic”. In spite of the hyperbole, the program was a great opportunity to hear some of the better music of the 20th century.

Ray Chen © Sophie Zhai
Ray Chen
© Sophie Zhai

One of the best things about marking the centenary of a composer’s birth is the opportunity to focus on their works and this is what the ASO is doing this year for Leonard Bernstein. His music at times seems to be a logical extension of the work of his mentor, Aaron Copland, yet Bernstein adds flair for colorful orchestration, theatricality and rhythm. Memorial retrospectives of his music will help reintroduce Bernstein to contemporary audiences. His Divertimento for Orchestra is very characteristic in style; its eight movements include both American musical idioms such as the Turkey Trot and the Blues, combined with more traditional forms such as the Waltz and Mazurka, updated in the composer’s Broadway-influenced style. The piece, written to honor the 100th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, may have sounded anachronistic and derivative in 1980, especially since it was composed just following decades of great musical experimentation. Today, it’s possible to listen to this music with “fresh ears” and appreciate how approachable and fun it is. It cleverly alludes to some of the composers the BSO championed (such as Bartók) throughout its storied history. The ASO performed the Divertimento with enthusiasm and Maestro Merlot invoked a brisk tempo to add excitement and shimmer.

Violinist Ray Chen provided a powerful, energy-infused performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Chen was on fire, attacking his violin with passion whilst maintaining musicality and warmth and coaxing a glorious, never strident, sound. Morlot and the ASO partnered beautifully, never overwhelming Chen nor fading listlessly into the background.  The first and third-movement Allegros were extraordinary in execution. Prokofiev's concerto is a powerful work with devilishly difficult solo passages and brilliant orchestral writing; this was a near perfect performance.

French native Henri Dutilleux‘s Métaboles is in five movements played without break. The composer said that his intention was to present one or several ideas in a different order and from different angles and through successive modifications, changes their character completely. The composer’s intent and what the listener hears may be very different things, but in this instance, it works. The piece begins very discordantly, with descending figures in the woodwinds very reminiscent of the introduction to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Within the first roughly 30 seconds of the piece, it would be easy to write it off as disjointed and dissonant, but as it continues to develop, it becomes an aurally intriguing work that shifts its focus from one section of the orchestra to another, almost in a concerto-for-orchestra fashion.

There is some extraordinary writing for all sections, but particularly notable are the pizzicato passages for the double bass that are so deep that they almost sounded like distant thunder. The percussion section was large and diverse, and Dutilleux used it for restrained effect. The brass section was particularly smooth and controlled, playing long muted passage with finesse. By the end of the piece, it was obvious that Morlot admires this work, and such admiration is not misplaced. His enthusiasm was matched by the musicians who applied tight, technically brilliant musicianship to this startlingly intriguing work.

Ravel’s La Valse has inspired many a dream sequence in theater and film. It’s an evocation of a ballroom in the mid-19th century, where the dancers emerge, almost disembodied, from a fog, only to become possessed by an increasingly turbulent and insistent waltz. Under Morlot, the orchestra applied the required lightness when playing the somewhat demonic waltz theme, yet unleashing a torrent of sound at the dance’s devilish climax. This was an outstanding concert.