Single-composer nights seem like a good idea, especially if the composer is your favorite. It can provide an opportunity to hear the composer’s growth and development and it encourages in-depth reflection on his/her style. Or might such programming simply lead to boredom from repetition, an appreciation of the composer’s limited range, and assorted compositional deficits? Judged by the number of times orchestras feature one composer, those doing the programming must think the positives outweigh the negatives. About four years ago, the Atlanta Symphony under music director Robert Spano played Sibelius’ Sixth and Seventh Symphonies together on one program. By the end of the concert, one had to ask how many more bleak landscapes, wind driven snow storms, and frozen lakes should one have to endure in one sitting.

Robert Spano © Angela Morriss
Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss

This weekend’s performance was made up of three works by Rachmaninov, a composer who is popular, in part, because of his late-Romantic melodies and rich harmonies. Given his popularity, Symphony Hall was nearly full for this performance. The evening began with the exquisitely lovely Vocalise, originally written in 1915 as a piece for soprano and piano, and later arranged by the composer for full orchestra. The main melody is haunting and familiar and has been used many times in the popular culture. Surprisingly, something was not quite right in this performance. It began a bit too forte, which undermined some of the work’s overall passion and drama, and the high strings sounded thin, not full and rich enough to make a case for the over-the-top romance of the piece. It was a fully competent performance, but not the ultimate in lush sound.

Pianist Stephen Hough joined the orchestra to play the Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor, which is an early piece that the composer reworked nearly three decades later, giving it the benefit of his increasing compositional skills. It is a work that anticipates his more famous and robust second and third concertos. Hough is a technical master and he knows how to wring all of the drama from a phrase to heighten its overall impact. But the orchestral writing in this concerto is pedestrian and seems designed mostly for supporting the piano line, rather than adding its own independent power to the music. Maestro Spano led the ASO in a competent if uninspiring accompaniment.

The 1940 Symphonic Dances, the last work penned by the composer, effectively summarizes his compositional strengths and weaknesses. At its best, it has a rhythmic drive that shows that Rachmaninov could create orchestral excitement, as in the first and second movements. And all three movements demonstrate his melodic inventiveness; his use of the alto saxophone in the opening dance is an example of his skill at colorful orchestration in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he greatly admired. At its worst, Dances can be a turgid, somnambulant walk through a depressed and dark, seemingly interminable, sonic landscape, as in the middle section of the final movement. Maybe Rachmaninov’s greatest weakness is writing for the orchestra as if it were a piano so that many passages that would engage on it seem meandering and unfocused when played by the full orchestra. Without a doubt, Spano produced his best interpretation of the evening here.

So is one evening of three Rachmaninov works a good idea? The audience liked it, and it was an opportunity to hear the composer’s strengths and weaknesses, but the latter seemed to dominate. It was instructive, but not necessarily enjoyable.