Most composers have a characteristic sound. With Brahms, it is the unmistakable warmth of the lower strings and horns; with Tchaikovsky it’s the brass and dance-like passages; and with Beethoven its strong thematic statements and development. Contemporary composers have similar sound signatures. For example, it is easy to identify John Adams’ works because of their colorful orchestrations, bright percussive effects, minimalist repetition, and irregular meters. In honor of Adam’s 70th birthday, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are programming several of his works this season and this week’s concert featured the often-played foxtrot The Chairman Dances (based on music from Nixon in China).

It is interesting to reflect on how a musical work composed in 1985 might have seemed cutting-edge at the time, but now sounds familiar and not all that interesting, in part because Adams’ compositional palette is somewhat limited. He found his compositional niche and has stayed with it, and one piece (early or more recent) sounds much like another. Notwithstanding this, Spano and the ASO played the score with enthusiasm and great vigor. This 12-minute work was a showcase for the orchestra. The brass section was sharp and controlled, and the strings showed wonderful ensemble in the music’s challenging fingerings and bowings. Charles Settle, Acting Principal Percussion, gave an exhilarating performance on a range of instruments, and his enthusiasm for the music was apparent.  

Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major is unusual because, the principal theme in the first movement is never carried by the piano. Rather, it is played first by the full orchestra and then by the bassoons. The slow second movement is a lyrical Andante and the finale is a spirited Rondo. Bosnian-born pianist Pedja Muzijevic was an understated soloist who uses his body sparingly, without histrionics, and lets his fingers produce a finely controlled and intelligent performance. Muzijevic appropriately limited his dynamic range so as not to transform Mozart into a kind of faux Romantic composer. He and Spano seemed to enjoy each other’s musical approach, and the ASO played a satisfyingly controlled accompaniment. The performance was marred by some intonation issues, particularly by the horns in the work’s introduction and the trumpets at its conclusion. The third movement parings of the bassoon and clarinet were gorgeously executed. Overall this was a faithful and polite performance that effectvely served the elegant music.

Shostakovich’s monumental Fifth Symphony is full of musical drama, ranging from bombastic marches to soaring string-based melodies, to triumphant themes in the brass. The composer has provided his thought about the music and how it was composed as a reaction to Soviet repression of his work. But considering only the music (and not the composer’s program), it is a searing masterpiece of skillful attention-grabbing music that makes 50 minutes seem half as long. It also requires talented musicians to make everything fall into place and here is where Spano and his orchestra demonstrated that they can be extraordinarily powerful.

Every section of the orchestra is called upon in the music to be technically competent and musically polished. Spano was very focused on the critical dynamic contrasts in the score and the orchestra responded as if they collectively shared his vision. The ASO and Spano provided a near perfect performance of this work; this is their kind of music and they brought their special kind of fire to it, making a passionate and consuming statement.