The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended its “Behind the Curtain” streamed series on June 10 with its first concert to deploy the complete orchestra – some seventy players – on the stage together without wide spacing. String players continued to wear masks, but there did not appear to be any shielding among the wind and brass players. After fifteen months of social distancing and small ensembles, the crowded assemblage seemed simultaneously freakishly odd and comforting in its appearance of a return to normalcy. The concert also marked the end of Robert Spano’s twenty year tenure as music director of the ASO.

Robert Spano
© Jeff Rothman

The pairing of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with its 20th century American Romanticism, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was felicitous. Barber’s “concerto for voice” portrays small-town America from the eyes of a child; Mahler’s symphony, at much greater length, gives us glimpses of heaven and earth, ending with a child’s ecstatic vision of the the heavenly life, with plenty of food, dancing, and saints galore. American soprano Jessica Rivera was the soloist in both works, thus linking their thematic connections further.

Barber’s Knoxville was premiered by soprano Eleanor Steber and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948, with a text extracted by Barber from James Agee’s prose poem of the same name. Barber subsequently revised the work for a smaller orchestra, now the commonly performed version. The text is from the viewpoint of a child on a warm summer evening on the lawn with his family. The child observes stars, the sparks on a streetcar, the “people in pairs” walking down the sidewalk, and his family’s talk about “nothing in particular.” The music opens lyrically, with a rocking triple meter. A central section is dramatic, reaching a stirring climax, before settling back into a reprise of the opening. But the narrator notes an unsettling reality as the final phrase that his family will never “tell me who I am.” Jessica Rivera has a darker, fuller voice than some lighter-voiced sopranos who often sing this work, but that quality made her especially effective in the more dramatic passages. The video stream had subtitles of the text, but these were not essential because Rivera’s American English diction was outstanding. Spano favored tempi that seemed somewhat too deliberate, which made Barber’s long, legato phrases a challenge for the singer.

In Mahler’s most delicate symphony, Robert Spano again chose tempi that seemed slower than many conductors; yet in looking at Mahler’s markings, all of the movements have indications such as “deliberate,” “without haste,” “restful”. This is not to say that the performance was slow or plodding; indeed, Spano clarified the overall architecture of each movement, modifying tempi, building climaxes and perhaps focusing more on the dramatic impact of the music than some other performances. It was, however, at the outer limit of cohesiveness. The second movement chatters of winds and string pizzicato were charming diversions. The third movement built slowly to its final Technicolor apotheosis. Via video editing, the fourth movement followed immediately with Jessica Rivera in radiant voice for Mahler’s setting of Das Himmlischen Leben, from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, with its childlike visions of delicious food, dancing, and saintly antics. It was a lovely and comforting end to a difficult performing season.

This performance was reviewed from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra video stream