Each year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra attracts a bevy of top-tiered solo performers, but it rarely manages to schedule the world’s top-tier of conductors, or the top-tier of those based in the US. But his week’s pair of concerts featured one of the top names of the conducting world, maestro Edo de Waart. With a career that began in the early 1960s, de Waart has been music director of about 12 different orchestras and opera companies worldwide. He has also been a guest conductor to nearly every major international orchestra and opera company. He has been described as “tetchy” and outspoken by journalists, yet he continues to garner new appointments, with the most recent being a contract to be the music director of the New Zealand Symphony. Given that some guest conductors have brought out the best in the ASO, de Waart’s visit has been highly anticipated. 

Edo de Waart
© Jesse Willems

The concert program was novel in that it included only two works by Russians Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. The guest soloist in the 1948 Shostakovich violin concerto was 33-year-old Augustin Hadelich, who was last in Atlanta in 2014. Hadelich has proven himself to be both a highly accomplished technician as well as a first-rate musician. He has overcome great personal adversity in order to take his place among the most highly regarded violinists of his generation, and his performance with the ASO did not disappoint. The Shostakovich is a technically challenging work, both musically and physically, and Hadelich played it to perfection. From his amazing bow control to the nimbleness of his fingers, there seemed to be little that was a challenge to him.

The concerto’s first movement Nocturne is typical of the brooding, slightly ominous style of the composer, often attributed to expressions of his fear and apprehension of the Soviet state and its leadership. This performance with de Waart and Hadelich seemed particularly anxiety-ridden. The higher energy second movement Scherzo is a superficial contrast in mood to the first, but it has is a mocking dread that suffuses many of the composer’s works. Again, both conductor and soloist mined the savage musical joke for all of its worth. The third movement, Passacaglia, gave Hadelich more opportunity to showcase his virtuosity, with repeated double stops and harmonics as well his extraordinary bowing accuracy. The long and technically challenging solo was mesmerizing and attention-grabbing.

The final movement, Burlesque, highlighted the power of the ASO’s woodwinds and wonderfully improved French horns, along with the soloist’s ability to play increasingly accelerating fingerings. In response to thunderous applause, Hadelich treated the audience to an encore of the Paganini Caprice no. 21.  One of the highlights of this performance was the warm, sweet, dark and smooth timbre of Hadelich’s violin, a 1723 Stradivari.

The 1907 Rachmaninov Symphony no. 2 is a big and rich piece full of memorable melody that is maybe the best display of the composer’s Romantic style. Yet for all of its wonders, it can be a bloated and leaden experience for the listener if the symphony’s structure is not appreciated by orchestra and/or conductor. It was apparent, from the theme of the first movement that emanates quietly from the low strings and eventually overtakes the entire orchestra, that maestro de Waart is attentive to structure. For example, the introductory theme is part of a roughly five-minute-long crescendo followed by a controlled decrescendo that establishes the mood for the entire symphony. De Waart carefully controlled the gradual explosion of melody so that it not only served as an introduction but also established the thrust of the entire first movement. His understanding of the structure of each passage, as it relates to the forward motion of each movement and ultimately to the arc of the entire symphony, kept the music from collapsing under its own weight. This was a brilliant performance; the ASO strings delivered a burnished sound with great ensemble, and the dialogue of the oboe and English horn in the third movement was stellar. The horns were also remarkable in their energy and subtlety, especially when playing accents to main themes.

Overall this was a magnificent concert that demonstrates that the ASO, with the right leadership, can be absolutely first-rate. Maestro de Waart brought out the best from the orchestra and soloist Hadelich was spectacularly good.