After a few weeks of delayed, redesigned and postponed concerts, the Atlanta Symphony returned to Symphony Hall to get on with unfinished business – returning to its regular concert season. Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar briefly addressed the audience, reminding the patrons that each composer had a unique story influencing their compositions: Jessie Montgomery had the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East side as an inspiration; Astor Piazzolla had the mean streets of Argentina; and Josef Strauss had his musical family. And finally, Kalmar reflected on what might have been had Franz Schubert’s life not been cut short. Maybe his Unfinished Symphony would have been completed in grand Schubertian style. Upon reflection, the notion of “unfinished” seems to have been a thread holding the evening’s program together.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Jeff Roffman

Montgomery’s Records from a Vanishing City is described as a tone poem based on her recollections of music that she heard as a child, where her neighborhood’s diversity was felt in block parties, festivals and shindigs of every sort. She says that her work was also influenced by the death of James Rose and she drew upon a traditional Angolan lullaby in tribute. Yet this work seemed to be devoid of the energy that one might expect from the vivacious street life she enjoyed, lacking dynamic range, rhythmic drive, creative use of orchestration, or even melody. The piece’s rich inspiration seemed not to translate into the actual music. It even seemed unfinished, like the first draft of a work that might benefit from a revisit to infuse more energy, color and dynamism. 

After a four-year absence, Latvian accordion virtuoso Ksenija Sidorova made a return visit to Atlanta to perform Piazzolla’s 1979 Concerto for Bandoneon, a work she had also performed on her last visit. Sidorova has helped to champion the accordion as a fully-fledged concert instrument. In a similar way, Piazzola had upgraded the tango from the brothels and bars of Argentina and Uruguay to the international concert platform and is the world’s greatest composer of tango music. Being that Piazzolla was a skillful bandoneon player, many of his works incorporate the instrument. It's not a great leap for Sidorova to adapt his scores for the accordion. The Sidorova-Kalmar pairing was incredibly strong in the three-movement concerto. Kalmar kept a firm grip on dynamics, and Sidorova made sure that the important right-hand sounds of her instrument were never lost in the orchestral thunder. Yet, it was apparent that the left-hand chords and bass were mostly smothered, an imbalance that became even more apparent when Sidorova played a solo encore of Angelis’ Fantasie on a Theme of A. Piazzolla’s Chiquilín de Bachín. The richness of her left-hand added depth and smoothness to the instrument that was almost unheard in the concerto. 

Ksenija Sidorova and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Jeff Roffman

Schubert’s “Unfinished” is a widely admired work despite it only having two movements. Kalmar was in his element, conducting an energetic and powerful performance, taking advantage of the work’s dynamics to infuse drama. Maybe because the performance was so good that not having the two final movements seemed a great loss; this strong performance made acute the unfinished nature of the symphony. The final work was Josef Strauss’ Music of the Spheres, which surprisingly was receiving its first performance by the ASO. The orchestra musicians performed admirably, and Kalmar imbued the music's spirit. 

Overall, this program seemed a bit odd, its framing pieces underwhelming. Records was not a rousing beginning, nor was Spheres a profound ending. The program seemed like a collection of unrelated works, which blunted its musical impact, almost as if it was emotionally unfinished.