This week, a musician friend posted on social media “If I see the words ‘reimagined season’ one more time I’m going to scream.”  Yes, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has proclaimed its slate of virtual concerts as a “reimagined” season. Yet, however described, American symphony orchestras are mostly dependent on non-governmental support and they are in a pandemic environment where they must scramble to find ways to survive, in part by finding new ways to continue a connection with their donors and music-loving audiences. The ASO management and musicians have responded, not just by reposting previously recorded material, but by creating new online video productions with major artists performing in carefully designed spaces providing access to concerts. This week’s performance began with a brief interview with renowned Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who expressed his gratitude at being able to play again with a full orchestra, something he has not done in several months.

Inon Barnatan
© Marco Borggreve

The first work on this program was Barber’s Summer Music for woodwind quintet, here played by the principal flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, as well as newly appointed ASO principal horn Jaclyn Rainey.  Each of the players was in a plexiglass surround, which made for some intriguing reflections; for example, while the camera focused on two players, a third could be seen, almost apparition-like. The Barber piece is an upbeat pleasant work, almost as if it is representing the optimism of a warm and hopeful summer day in 1950s America. In some ways, it is an ironic contrast to today’s circumstances, where musicians must play in a “plexiglass terrarium”, as described by Ms Rainey. The ASO woodwinds have consistently demonstrated their musical and technical skills over the years, and their performance here was no different. It was precise and assured, and Ms Rainey brought added confidence to this delightful work. Both the sound and the camerawork were quite good. We are used to hearing great musicians, it is a bonus to see how they work to produce great sound.

Barnatan joined Maestro Robert Spano in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major, with its famous second movement Andante. The camerawork during the concerto was outstanding, the close-ups of the pianist’s hands noteworthy, and the long shots through the open piano lid were excellent. Seeing Barnatan’s fingers attack the keys while his hands remained almost motionless was a wonderful detail not seen in the live concert hall. The overhead shots of the orchestra were impressive, particularly as a reminder of how large the stage is in Atlanta’s Symphony Hall, which is often cited by musicians as a reason they say they have a difficult time hearing each other. This effect must be amplified when the musicians must be socially distanced and separated by plexiglass barriers, which might explain why this performance was precise and careful but lacking in impact. Spano’s sometimes slow tempi choices may have been a direct result of everyone’s relative isolation on a large stage. Nevertheless, Barnatan gave an impeccable rendering of this beloved concerto.

The final work on the program was the beautiful Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky, a piece with some of the composer’s most famous and memorable melodies.  This performance was an opportunity for the strings to shine, and that they did, with a warm glow that fitted the music perfectly. Probably because of the microphone placements and the visual cues created by the camera, the violas seemed particularly strong here. Yet this performance had some of the same characteristics as the Mozart – highly skilled but curiously cautious and subdued.  

The production of this concert was impressive, from the solid camerawork to the great sound recording, which had a nice stereo spread and depth with no obvious dynamic range compression. Thanks to the ASO  for producing a nicely “reimagined”  virtual concert during a most difficult time.   

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream