Performing in the time of Covid presents untold difficulties for musical artists, but the Atlanta Symphony manages to keep live performance flourishing in the current, unprecedented circumstances. In this live stream, the orchestra availed themselves of the knowledge and expertise of venerated maestro Sir Donald Runnicles. Recently knighted, he is known for his reverence for the classical composers, Mozart in particular, and has shown this devotion at such prestigious temples of opera as The Met and San Francisco Opera, the latter where he was longtime music director.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the ASO
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

The concert began by bringing to the orchestra’s virtual stage the Peachtree String Quartet, which consists of four of the orchestra’s outstanding musicians: violinists Christopher Pulgram and Sissi Yuqing Zhang, violist Yang-Yoon Kim, and cellist Thomas Carpenter. The ensemble, which performs regularly throughout the metro Atlanta area, displayed an impressive knowledge of the intimate qualities of musique de chambre. Mozart’s String Quartet no. 19 in C major, “Dissonance”, is one of the composer’s most remarkable and most operatic chamber works. Within the first bars of the opening recitative-like Adagio, the three upper instruments form unsettling progressions – devilish tritones and ear-jarring minor seconds – with each other and with the cello ostinato, until the final resolution to C major. The rest of the work stays true to its central key. This introduction brings to mind the opening of Beethoven’s third “Razumovsky” quartet, also in C major.

Peachtree String Quartet
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Despite being masked, the group succeeded in maintaining the eye contact necessary for the precise playing required and gave a faithful rendering of the work. They play extremely well together, with the kind of homogeneous sound that shows they have been performing as a unit for some time, and their tempi were excellent. First violinist Pulgram did not quite match cellist Carpenter’s round, full sound, but his playing did stand out in the Adagio, the most operatic of the three movements.

Rainer Eudeikis
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

The lively melodic and rhythmic virtuosity of Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in D major is reminiscent of Mozart’s violin concertos. ASO principal cellist Rainer Eudeikis took a few moments to warm up, but his tone became warmer and more comfortable as he continued. The cadenzas by de Lemos and Lidström showed the soloist’s solid technique to advantage. Eudeikis’s upper range was particularly impressive, and his legato in the slow movement was beautifully wrought; though a livelier tempo in the final movement would have been more pleasing. The orchestra, properly distanced, masked except for winds and brass, played elegantly under Runnicles, whose usual classical sensitivity did not disappoint. Rather than always conducting beat by beat, he minimized his gestures, which contributed effectively to the flow of the piece. 

The performance closed with Haydn’s humorous Symphony no. 60 in C major, nicknamed “Il distratto” (the distracted), which makes use of incidental music Haydn wrote for a French play, Le Distrait. Haydn even quotes his “Farewell” Symphony in this droll work. Sir Donald played up the piece’s operatic aspects in all six movements. He emphasized the theatrical motifs, such as the oboe-horn dialogue in the Andante and the bagpipe drone in the courtly Minuet. He seemed to relish the inharmonious scordatura in the concluding prestissimo, and his musicians played as if they were enjoying the ride. Though slightly out of sync in a few places, the playing was crisp and refined. Trumpets in the second slow movement were very stately and the conductor’s lively tempo in the final movement allowed the orchestra’s virtuosity to shine.

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream