One of the arguments for having guest conductors at symphony orchestras is that they can bring new perspectives and techniques to challenge the status quo of musicians and resident conductors. Like so much of life, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Maestro Donald Runnicles has been principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for about a decade. He has developed a reputation as someone who how can shake things up, in a good way, each time he visits. In tonight’s concert, he demonstrated some of what he does best: creating tight tempi, great ensemble among the musicians, rapport with the guest artist, and paying attention to the detail of dynamics, which he successfully communicates to the musicians. If one were to hear the ASO for the first time with Runnicles on the podium, it would sound like the world class orchestra it aspires to be.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Neikrug’s 2017 The Unicorn of Atlas Creek was receiving its world première at this pair of concerts. It was commissioned jointly by the ASO and the Grand Teton Music Festival, where Runnicles is music director. The work is an effort to pay homage to a mutual friend who has had a positive influence on the lives of both the composer and conductor. The ten-minute work is about 75 percent crescendo, with 25 percent being finale. Neikrug described the work as having many layers, like the experience of looking at clouds, where some layers are in the foreground and some in the rear. Such layering is apparent but it mostly sounded like the violins playing passages of long notes followed by other long notes, with little relation between the two, and without lyrical or readily apparent rhythmic base. The finale introduced some percussion and the motifs are shorter and more spritely, but only moderately so. Overall it was a rather dull work that made ten minutes seem like an hour. Maybe The Unicorn will become more interesting with repeated hearings; it is a very down-tempo and relatively quiet composition, which also made it an odd piece to begin a concert.  But Runnicles and the ASO were perfectly attuned to each other and they played it with skill and enthusiasm. The composer seemed pleased and the audience thanked him profusely with their applause. 

Piano soloist, Russian-born, Kirill Gerstein played the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor that was used by the composer himself when he conducted it. Later edited versions of the score are usually heard in the concert hall today. Gerstein describes the original as more lyrical and almost Schumannesque. But the overall work remains large, sprawling and episodic. Many of the self-contained sections within a movement seem to stand in isolation (e.g. the theme of the introduction) and there are false stops sprinkled throughout that can give the concerto a herky-jerky feel. In spite of these structural issues, the work is a pillar of the concerto literature and is beloved for it melodic invention. Runnicles and Gerstein were totally together in this performance, technically and musically.  Watching the Maestro gesture to a section of the orchestra to lower its volume, and then hearing an immediate response left no question as to who was in charge. Conductor and soloist seemed to have no difference of opinion regarding tempi, dynamics or balances. The third movement, which has themes from Russian folk music, was played rapidly and exuberantly. Its trepak-like inflection intensified the Slavic color of the work. It was wonderful. After the ovations, Gerstein joined Runnicles and Neikrug at the piano to perform a Rachmaninov Romance for six hands. One piano, three great pianists, and thirty fingers made for a stunning encore.

The history of Shostakovich’s antagonistic relationship with the leaders of the Soviet Union, especially Stalin, are numerous and well known. Safe to say they were not close friends. The composer’s Tenth Symphony was composed after Stalin’s death and in it he seems to be rehashing those tensions. The Tenth is nearly an hour long (which seems like half an hour too long), but it is replete with great orchestration and raw emotions. This was a truly fine performance. Runnicles showed his characteristic discipline and each section of the ASO responded with a finely polished performance, led by the highly refined woodwinds. In addition, the cellos were strong, the brass were well-controlled, and the violins were precise and nuanced. This was a fine performance of an important 20th-century work. Maestro Runnicles never fails to deliver on his visits to Atlanta.