A curse of the contemporary classical music composer may be that your beloved work may never be played for an audience, or once played, it will never to be heard again. There are reasons for this, of course: there is a lot vying for limited performance time and sometimes a work is simply not meritorious enough. Yet Robert Spano, the Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is a master at identifying and performing great contemporary works that warrant repeat performance. This week’s concerts demonstrated the principle that a repeat hearing of a meritorious work is worth the time and effort.

Robert Spano © Angela Morris
Robert Spano
© Angela Morris

Richard Prior’s 2013 work …of shadow and light… (incantations for orchestra) was given its world premiere by the ASO in October 2013. At the time, I wrote: “Dr Prior, from Emory University, has produced a stunning tone poem that is at times forbidding and anxious, while at other jubilant and exuberant. This is a piece that must find its way into the ASO's repertory, as well as that of other orchestra's.”

Time and a second listening do not change that opinion. Prior has crafted an ominous work, engagingly orchestrated, that is unrelenting in its tension. Themes move from one section of the orchestra to another and are explored to their fullest. The first five minutes include a gradual crescendo of tension which, even at its climax, is never fully released. Prior uses the percussion instruments wisely to underscore tension; they are never a superficial detail. Of shadow and light ends with a brass-driven forte finale that is a mixture of triumph and resolution, but with a continuing undercurrent of dread. This is a brooding, sometimes dissonant, work that ruminates with richness and forward motion. It deserves to have been heard twice; in fact, it deserves to be heard repeatedly.

James Oliverio's Double Timpani Concerto was premiered with the ASO in 2011 and has been performed several times in succeeding years by various orchestras. It was commissioned by The Brothers Yancich: Mark, principal timpani with the ASO, and Paul, principal timpani in The Cleveland Orchestra. Each of the soloists had five drums, which were struck with various sticks or mallets, and tuned using the foot pedals. Flanking each soloist, one per side, was a harp. The first movement, Impetuous, began with the timpani presenting the melody, which is then picked up by the orchestra with a joyous Latin-tinged style. Swirling figures in the violins and a brass-infused chorale made for a rich mix. The second movement, Naiveté, has the timpani introducing a warm melody that is echoed by the two harps, and then the full orchestra. The technical requirements of making the timpani “sing” the melody were fully matched by the skills of the Yancichs. The third movement, Interlude, created a dialogue between the drums and the woodwinds, especially the bassoon. The fourth movement, Ancestors Within, spotlights the soloists, and the final movement begins with a thematic statement in the timpani, which is again picked up by the full orchestra. The soloists are in focus in a bravura section that demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and the technical skill of the soloists. In the traditional classical repertory, the timpani are usually employed to accent the music. Even in this work that features them as solo instruments, it is difficult to hear them in primary roles when a melody is also being played by the orchestra. The concerto is far more effective when the timpani are featured as separate and distinct instruments. It is a noteworthy work and was a welcome return guest at Symphony Hall.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is probably the most recognizable of all classical works. It is supposed to be about fate's mysterious role in determining the destiny of humans. To some degree, it’s an anachronistic concept that has been superseded by Freudian-inspired theories of men being the architects of their own greatness and/or downfall. Nevertheless, in Spano’s interpretation, Fate is not the tyrant knocking at the door, but rather a force simply trying to get your attention, almost as if asking “May I borrow a cup of sugar?” The crucial first movement was rather tame, with important shadings and contrasts missing. The other movements were more successful, where greater attention was given to detail and phrasing. The final movement was exciting, but there were some unfortunate intonation problems in the horns, which marred the finale.

****1