A beautifully played concert is not necessarily the same as a musically memorable one as demonstrated by this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. Danish Conductor Thomas Søndergård led a program of French music and was joined in the effort by French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. Berlioz's overture Le Corsaire is a rousing way to begin a concert. The ASO’s swirling strings and punctuating woodwinds began the piece vigorously. The subsequent Adagio was paced somewhat rapidly, and everything hurled toward the finale, with excellent playing by the brass. At the conclusion, Søndergård, with a beaming smile, signaled his approval to the musicians. 

Thomas Søndergård © Martin Bubandt
Thomas Søndergård
© Martin Bubandt
Ravel's Piano Concerto in D major for the left hand begins in the low strings, quickly followed by some nifty growls in the contrabassoon, which are then joined by the horns and eventually the strings. The music seems to slowly organize itself from an amorphous rumbling to a focused announcement of the piano’s entrance. Mr Tharaud carefully controlled the dynamics of piano’s introductory passages to ensure that the eventual presentation of the main theme was brilliantly highlighted. Because of Ravel’s colorful orchestration, every section of the orchestra is spotlighted in this relatively brief work and the musicians responded ably. Maestro Søndergård chose slightly fast tempi throughout and the piano was placed forward of Symphony Hall’s acoustical shell, which resulted in it being awash in echo. It was as if the orchestra and the piano were in two different acoustical spaces. In response to the audience’s insistent approval of his performance, Mr Tharaud’s played an encore, Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 no. 1, which he performed flawlessly.

The second half of the program began with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, an elegant evocation of Spain that again demonstrates the composer’s mastery of orchestral color. The first movement quietly and delicately depicts the approaching evening, while nothing is to be played louder than mezzo forte.  In Søndergård's version, however, the sunset seemed a bit loud, which made the dying light not quite as gentle as Ravel might have intended. The performance of the beguiling Malagueña was suitably dance-like and was nicely accented. The third movement Habanera was languid and faithful in style to it dance roots. In the final Feria, Søndergård brought out both the riotous carnival color but also the music’s sometimes subtle underlying anxiety or apprehension. Woodwinds and brass were outstanding throughout, and concertmaster David Coucheron and assistant Justin Bruns brought Spanish fire and soul to their duet.

Closing out the program were Debussy’s three sketches of the sea, La Mer, receiving warm and colorful performances. Søndergård and the orchestra had a shared vision of the work that translated into a satisfying presentation. Woodwinds were outstanding and the percussion was never overpowering, adding just the right amount of color and accent where needed. Ensemble throughout was tight. Again, the tempi chosen were a bit fast. This was an evening of French music which was very well played but, at times, could have benefited from a bit more interpretive grace. Occassionally, subtlety was missing; phrases could have been a bit more articulated, adding a bit of extra depth and musical insight. Even though the music was well-played it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that would have taken it to the next level of interpretive sophistication. It’s wonderful to be impressed with great playing, but it’s even more wonderful to be impressed with great playing and great interpretation. Nevertheless, Mr Tharaud’s solo was strong, refined and virtuosic. His performance of the difficult Ravel concerto was charming and it was the evening’s highlight.