The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is in the process of finding a new music director in the wake of the previously announced departure of long-time conductor Robert Spano (who is still Music Director through the end of the 2020/21 season). This means that some guest conductors are likely being auditioned for the part. It is not a leap of logic to conclude that Thomas Søndergård, who appeared once last season and twice this season, is on the “short-list” of possibilities. The Danish-born Søndergård is currently Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Coincidentally, Søndergård’s predecessor at the RSNO was Peter Oundjian, also a frequent and highly regarded guest conductor with the ASO.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the Atlanta Symphony
© Jeff Roffman

In last week’s concert pairs, Søndergård conducted a concert of four Sibelius works, which some critics described as too much of a good thing. This week, the programming focus remained in Scandinavia with four works, two by Swedes (Alfven and Stenhammar), one by a Norwegian (Grieg) and one by a Dane (Nielsen). Two of the three guest artists also are Scandinavian. Three of the four works performed were having their Atlanta premieres. Kudos to all involved for bringing very listenable repertory to Symphony Hall.

Alfven produced a four-movement suite from his 1923 ballet The Mountain King. The music itself is late Romantic in style, but with leaner sounding orchestration than found in the works of some of the composer’s contemporaries (such as Sibelius or Rachmaninov). This suite was the last major work of the composer, although he lived some forty years after its composition. Søndergård, who seems to have some affection for the music, used his large conducting style to coax some fine playing from the ASO. The final movement Dance of the Shepherd Girl has an orchestral rain shower that was tightly and transparently played. Alfven’s music is glittery, melodic and tonal, and is quite delightful if a bit insubstantial. 

Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, played here with soloist Håvard Gimse, is an audience favorite, overflowing with melody and charm. It is also one of the most frequently performed concertos in the piano literature. As good as it was overall, this performance could not be said to shed any new light on this oft-played masterpiece. The middle movement Adagio was subtle and languid, but some important horn solos were wobbly and out-of-tune. The final movement mustered great energy in both the ASO and Gimse, whose foot slapped the floor, adding unnecessary percussive effects.  In the climactic final chords, the orchestra and soloist were a bit out of synch, dampening the music’s impact.   

Andreas Landin, Thomas Søndergård and the Atlanta Symphony
© Jeff Roffman

Stenhammar’s 1891 Florez och Blanzeflor featured baritone soloist Andreas Landin singing about the love and death of a royal couple. This is another richly orchestrated piece that is easy to listen to and Landin did a fine job of telling the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the arrival of spring as a symbol of rebirth. Yet, in spite of the attractiveness of the music, the poem upon which the piece is based is certainly of another day, full of colorfully overblown sentiment. It is the aural equivalent of the wall poems so popular in the 1920s and 30s that contained larger than life praise, for example, of one’s mother or country living. That aside, Maestro Søndergård led a convincing performance of this late Romantic ballad and the ASO sounded rich and warm.

The final work was Nielsen’s 1911 Symphony no. 3, curiously subtitled “Espansiva”. It’s a conundrum as to why Nielsen’s music isn’t more frequently performed. While this symphony looks backward regarding form and orchestration, it has enough dissonance to give it a modern edge. It also has folk themes that lend a certain nationalistic flair. In his pre-performance lecture, Søndergård likened the wordless interchange between the solo soprano (Sherri Seiden) and baritone (Landin) as Adam calling out for Eve. Whatever its purpose, this feature in the second movement Andante pastorale, is hauntingly beautiful. The ASO winds were startlingly good in the third movement and the finale was remarkably cohesive and pulse-pounding. 

This was a notable performance because it introduced three composers’ work that, at least in the US, falls outside of the traditional concert hall fare. It was a bold stroke that paid off.