The summer’s extreme heat and lack of rain have created drought conditions in Atlanta. As fate would have it, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this week programmed two works drenched with water, albeit of the salty variety. Elgar’s Sea Pictures captures the essence of the sea by joining orchestral music and the sung verses of various poets, who describe their thoughts and feelings about the vastness and mysteries of the deep. Elgar even included a poem authored by his wife, Caroline Alice Roberts, entitled “In Heaven (Capri)”. For this performance, Robert Spano and the ASO were joined by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton.

Elgar was one of the leading British composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and his compositions contain rich Romantic orchestrations and beautiful themes that, on occasion, are overly large and lengthy, as with some of his symphonies. Not so with Sea Pictures; the text is not belabored by excessive repeats and, as a result, the words of the poems never lose their punch or feeling. It is impressive how Elgar uses the orchestra to underscore the yearning, apprehension, loneliness, love, awe and hope found in the source poems. The ASO musicians were inspired, with the strings being particularly smooth and silky. The real star of the performance was Ms Barton, who has a voice that is sparkling throughout its range, her beautifully controlled vibrato nearly perfect regardless of how loudly or softly she sings. Her diction was precise and every word was perfectly articulated, making the poetry crisp and intelligible. Ms Barton is one of those artists who engages the audience almost as if she is making eye-contact with everyone in the auditorium. She knows how to project her feeling with only the subtlest movements. Her performance was absolutely outstanding... the best vocal performance of the last two ASO seasons. She is a star!

The second watery piece was Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. In 2003, Maestro Spano and his Atlanta forces received two Grammies for their recording of this work. For this performance, soprano Tamara Wilson and baritone Brian Mulligan were the soloists. This hour-long work features poems from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and its four movements follow the traditional symphonic pattern: fast introduction, slow movement, scherzo and finale. The chorus sings in all four movements, the scherzo reserved for chorus alone. This work is a cornerstone of the English orchestral literature and is considered to have revived English symphonic form. Whitman’s poems were also very influential for their portrayal of the hopes and dreams of ordinary people.

Maestro Spano and the musicians of the ASO were masterful in their performance and it was obvious that playing this music was a labor of love for all. Mr Mulligan was powerful, his articulation as outstanding as his intonation. Ms Wilson has a pleasant and sweet voice, but had a difficult time with articulation and diction. Where Ms Barton’s voice seems to emanate from her entire body, Ms Wilson’s voice sounded thinner, as if only coming from her head.  The ASO Chorus has built up an impressive reputation over the years and its performance was good. Because of its size (about 150 voices) it can muster quite a big sound, but at full throttle, it loses its sharpness and its sound becomes smeared. This may be due in part to Symphony Hall’s difficult acoustics, but regardless, when the chorus is loud, ear protection should be mandatory!

Overall this was a fine performance, showcasing the refined sound of the ASO, Maestro Spano’s mastery of Vaughan Williams' music and the two skilled soloists' success in conveying the power of Whitman’s poetry.