It’s been an unseasonably warm autumn in Atlanta and the city is once again choked in traffic. The pandemic still lurks, yet about 1000 patrons, all masked and vaxxed, surmounted the environmental obstacles and came to Symphony Hall to experience a concert by the Atlanta Symphony’s principal guest conductor, Sir Donald Runnicles. Dedicated patrons know that a program led by Runnicles will be far from run-of-the mill and this concert was no exception.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the Atlanta Symphony
© Rand Lines

The opening work by Australian-born Melody Eötvös was a musing on the life of Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Lovelace is known for being one of the first computer programmers (in the mid-19th century), publishing an algorithm intended to be used on Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer. For this homage, Eötvös chose the title The Deciding Machine. The music is characterized by staccato themes scurrying through the orchestra’s strings, which creates a kind of an ominous, anxious automaton-like language. In its 12-minute length, it seems to have sections where a new statement of a problem is tackled by the deciding machine to find an answer, and once it does, it begins work on another challenge. For example, a “problem” might be stated in the solo violin and then it’s off to the races for the machine to find a solution. In this case, the problem sounded like an out-of-tune Celtic-inspired theme. The piece is generally loud and frantic and uses a large percussion collection. A large movie screen hung at the back of the Symphony Hall stage upon which a large projection of numbers streamed throughout the performance, adding a visual peek into the inner workings of a digital device. The piece was precisely played by the ASO, but it would likely take several more hearings to assess whether the piece has staying power.

Jacquelyn Stucker and the Atlanta Symphony
© Rand Lines

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs have been called “the most beautiful music ever written” and this may be true. For this lovely work, the ASO was joined by soprano Jacquelyn Stucker. These songs are Strauss’ farewell to life and his beloved wife, composed in an ultra-Romantic, extraordinarily lush style. The first three songs, Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (On going to sleep), are based on the poetry of Hermann Hesse. The final song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), was based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. For copyright issues, the ASO program book only provided song titles, but not English translations of the works, and there were no surtitles. Rather, the on-stage screen was used to display artistic photos reflecting the seasons and various times of day referenced in the songs. Stucker has an engaging stage presence; she invoked subtle reactions to the music, without being distracting, and displayed a strong, controlled voice throughout her range. In the soaring passages in Frühling, she seemed to swoop rather than glide through them, but the orchestra's playing was first-rate and Runnicles achieved a fine balance. 

Brahms' Symphony no. 1 in C minor is a cornerstone of the canon. Runnicles conducted a powerhouse interpretation. From the extended introduction of the first movement, taken here at a brisk pace, to the great main theme of the fourth movement, the violins played as if one. The horn section accepted Brahms’ compositional challenges with aplomb; they were accurate, musical and intense. The woodwinds were warm and precise. The Andante sostenuto was beautifully lyrical, and Runnicles made sure that it did not get bogged down in overly ripe sentimentality.  The finale was precise, controlled yet thrilling and concertmaster David Coucheron’s solos were impeccably played.

Overall, this was a grand performance that spoke to Runnicles’ control and the orchestra’s ability to play as a finely tuned machine when inspired performance by a talented conductor.