One sign that the long hot Atlanta summer may soon be over is the beginning of the new season of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. After the Damrosch-arranged national anthem, Music Director Robert Spano led a John Adams-penned fanfare, which is one of a three-part series of John Adams’ work that will be featured this season in honor of the composer’s 70th birthday. The Distant Trumpet fanfare is a small four-minute work which sounded typically Adams, with brightly-colored orchestration and just a touch of foreboding in the low brass. This fanfare featured a pair of “stereophonic” (as Adams describes it) on- and off- stage trumpets, although the effect was mostly lost in Symphony Hall.

Garrick Ohlsson © Paul Body
Garrick Ohlsson
© Paul Body

Maestro Spano is emerging as a Sibelius specialist. For the first half of this inaugural concert, Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E flat major was the featured work. Written in 1915, and subsequently revised, it is full of rich, dark timbres with consonant sonorities, strong woodwind lines (in parallel thirds) and beautiful melodic material. Annotators attribute this sound to Sibelius’ own darkening mood as the effects of the Great War were being felt across Europe, as well as in his own household and, specifically, his declining income. As a result, he developed this symphony in a more traditional symphonic style than his less-than-well-received Fourth. The initial theme of the Fifth was presented rather forte by the horns and woodwinds, which dampened some of the drama of the introduction. The middle of the first movement is almost like a development section, and Spano began it pianissimo and let the volume build until the Presto finale

The second movement is a set of variations on a melody introduced by the flute. The entire movement has a meandering feel to it, as if one were watching countryside through a train window, without the eye focusing on anything in particular. The traveler knows a mountain went by, and then a village and another village, and another mountain, but learns nothing in detail about any of them. Spano’s interpretation did little to help bring any of the music’s landscape into clearer focus. The third and final movement begins with a rapid tremolo in the strings, followed by the famous “swan call” theme that wends its way through the sections of the orchestra and the movement itself, all of which climaxes in the finale with six staggered chords separated by rests. This was a competent, but stolid performance, but there was some spectacularly fine playing throughout, particularly from the woodwinds. 

Garrick Ohlsson has had a long and distinguished career and seems as effortless a pianist as ever. His technical brilliance and good musical judgment were on display throughout his performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor and his playing was sensitive, neither becoming saccharine nor coldly virtuosic. His partnership with Spano and the orchestra was remarkable for delivering a balanced and crystal-clear performance. The first-movement cadenza held no fear for Ohlsson, whose large and nimble hands easily spanned the keyboard with incredible, yet controlled speed. The second movement theme-and-variations-style is lush and as richly romantic as any in concerto literature, and Ohlsson’s playing was rich and warm. Without pause, the third movement begins with a theme presented by the piano and it then returns to motifs presented in the first movement and follows that with new material. This all builds to a finale filled with pianistic fireworks that Ohlsson easily mastered with brilliant musical and technical skill. The ASO, Spano and Ohlsson created a powerful showpiece that in no way sacrificed depth for showmanship. Ohlsson is a treat to watch; he is a tall, stately man who sits quietly, calmly, and elegantly at the piano while producing a big and powerful performance.  Throughout the program, the orchestra sounded refreshed, even in spite of an occasional steely sound in the violins. Overall this was a very good performance to start a new concert season.