Tight control of all things musical is the hallmark of a performance by Donald Runnicles when he is on the podium with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. As Principal Guest Conductor for over a decade and a half, Runnicles appears to have developed a very productive and respectful musical relationship with the ASO that leads to top-tier performances. Their performances of late 19th-century and mid-20th-century French music in this concert continued that strong partnership.

Donald Runnicles © Florence Mccall
Donald Runnicles
© Florence Mccall

Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes is a shimmering musical canvas, inspired by James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s impressionist paintings of the same name. While Debussy is said to have disliked being labeled “an Impressionist composer” he nevertheless described his work as providing impressions of the effects of light. Nocturnes is a popular concert piece partly because it showcases the composer’s skill with orchestration, as well as his ability to create diaphanous sounds even when employing a full symphony orchestra. The first movement, “Nuages”, makes use of organum, a medieval form of polyphony where groups of instruments play the same melody but transposed by an interval. The woodwinds were assured and precise in their depiction of the illusiveness of clouds. The middle section of the second movement, “Fêtes”, features the brass and percussion in a raucous street party-like scene.  Unfortunately, the acoustics of Symphony Hall muddy the sound of a full orchestral forte, thereby robbing this section of some of its transparency. The final movement, “Sirènes”, includes a wordless chorus, here featuring the well-prepared female voices of the ASO Chorus. It was a shimmering performance.

The 1949 Concerto for flute and strings by Andre Jolivet featured as soloist one of the orchestra’s finest first chairs, flutist Christina Smith, who never fails to impress with her musical and technical artistry. She provided an outstanding performance with spot-on intonation in this somewhat odd and quirky piece of music. Jolivet’s compositional style in the concerto is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, where melody and cohesion often take a back seat to dissonance and color. The challenging flute solo at times only seems to be providing accents to the string parts. Yet when the flute is prominently stating its own thematic material, it often seems unrelated to what the strings are playing. It is as if the composer was developing two different works but decided to combine them. In fact, the flute could be playing in one hall and the strings in another and the listener would not necessarily find either insufficient on its own. In addition to Smith’s fine performance, the ASO strings were precise and together, with Maestro Runnicles keeping a good balance between them and the soloist.

The 1888 Requiem by Gabriel Fauré is a late Romantic vision of death as a welcome relief as opposed to something that should be railed against, as in Verdi’s masterpiece. Fauré arguably seems content to let the dead stay dead, while Verdi seems to want to wake them again! Joining the orchestra in this performance was the ASO Chorus, and soloists Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), and Mathew Worth (baritone). The work is divided into seven sections, so each section is fairly short and must get to its point fairly quickly, which the composer was mostly successful in achieving. In addition to the large orchestra and chorus, Fauré included an organ, played here by a digital instrument that was actually quite convincing. The composer tended to stay away from grand crescendos and climaxes, which makes the work sound even gentler. In fact, this Requiem seems to presage the lightness of the Impressionists, rather than rooting itself in the heavy Romanticism of its day. Given the large number of people on stage, Runnicles managed to convey convincingly the gentle spirit of the work. Even the ASO Chorus, which can at times be overwhelming, was throttled a bit, providing a well-controlled performance. The soloists are employed rather sparingly by the composer. The baritone, for example, performs in the Offertoire and Libera me. Mr. Worth has a fine voice that, while not particularly large in this performance, has a nicely controlled vibrato, and overall his singing style was a perfect match for this music. He also has a fine stage presence. Ms Strebel has a wonderful voice that is nicely uniform throughout her vocal range as well as the music’s dynamic range. Fauré only included the soprano in the exquisite Pie Jesu section so, unfortunately, we could not enjoy more of Ms Strebel’s fine vocal instrument. 

Maestro Runnicles and his combined force of performers each contributed greatly towards a fine concert of French music. The interpretations were strong and the performances even stronger, Runnicles making it easy to look forward to his next appearance with the ASO.