Last evening, Atlanta's Symphony Hall hosted about three hours of 20th-century masterpieces. After a pre-concert chamber performance featuring Stravinsky's neo-classical style "Octet", the actual Atlanta Symphony concert began with Shostakovich's Symphony no. 14, composed in 1969. The work comprises eleven movements which are essentially song settings, each more or less related to death, particularly unjust or early death. All manner of mayhem, including suicide, torture, war and incest are addressed in the poems by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Kuchelbecker and Rilke. Further, its ending provides no redemptive relief, so it is bleak up to the very end. Shostakovich composed it for chamber orchestra, with only strings and a broad-range of percussive instruments are employed.

Of the two soloists, Morris Robinson has a large stage presence and his bass voice is enormous, yet subtle and beautiful.  He did not seem particularly comfortable singing in Russian, which created a bit of distance between him and the work's emotional content. Russian-born Tatiana Monogarova walked onto the stage in a red strapless dress, her shoulders covered with a red chiffon-like wrap. Given that Symphony Hall can be cold, it was easy to assume that she was using the wrap for warmth, but that simple piece of cloth played a far more important role in her performance. She used it very effectively as a dramatic prop as she sang these despair-filled poems; she would grasp it against herself as if to provide comfort, or she dropped it to the floor coquettishly, or she wrapped it tightly around herself as if to provide warmth. Ms. Monogarova owned these poems and she acted out their loss and suffering in an understated yet powerful way. In the first movement, she seemed to have difficulty in her lower range, but as the work proceeded she was in total control of everything about her voice, including her modulated and understated vibrato. Given that her native tongue is Russian, she seemed to have the emotional identification with the lyrics that Mr Robinson lacked. Even when the work required shouting she maintained a gorgeous tone.

The ASO performed flawlessly: violins played with precision and Daniel Lauffer, associate principal cello, was magnificent in his solos, shaping phrases carefully, his cello never overwhelmed, especially in the O Delvig, Delvig! movement. Maestro Spano is a first-rate conductor of 20th century music and he has never been better than in this performance. 

The final work was Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, with 36-year old Simon Trpčeski as soloist. He played the introduction to the first movement ominously and slowly but throughout the rest of the Moderato, his piano was often overwhelmed by the orchestra. It was as if he and Masetro Spano had not quite worked out the relative roles of their respective instruments.

In the second movement Adagio sostenuto, the balances were more refined and Trpčeski's playing was impressive. The Allegro scherzando finale again seemed to have some balance problems, but the ASO sounded suitably lush in its rendition of the familiar romantic theme that was made into a pop tune in the mid-1940s, ("Full Moon and Empty Arms"). Although it didn't affect his performance, Mr. Trpčeski sometimes used the time between solos to survey the audience – from the highest balcony seats to those on the floor – as if he was searching for someone. It was both eccentric and a bit distracting. In all, this was a full evening of sometimes stellar performances of 20th-century classics.