Sir Donald Runnicles isn’t resting on his laurels now that he’s been knighted. With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, of which he is principal guest conductor, the Scot led an expansive, diverse program that showcased both the orchestra’s pluck across a wide swath of music and his own continued creative curiosity. He even traded his spot on the podium at one point for a seat on the piano bench, accompanying mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor in Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis. All in all, it made for a fine evening of streaming music.

Kelley O'Connor, Sir Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

The ASO strings met the challenges of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge head on, and in each movement, they displayed a different facet of their virtuosity. Britten set out to capture an aspect of his teacher’s personality in each of the ten variations, and what the Atlantans gave the listener here was a complete picture – sunniness and good humor in the Aria Italiana, Sturm und Drang in the Funeral March, precision and a feel for tradition in the Fugue. Although some pauses between variations lingered a hair too long, Runnicles gave the piece a fine sense of shape overall. This music often falls to chamber orchestras, and it was impressive to see one of America’s august symphonic bodies summon that level of intimacy with ease.

Intimacy was also on display between Runnicles and O’Connor. His accompaniment in the Debussy was supportive without being deferential, and he made the piano writing a star in its own right, highlighting the coloristic aspects that are so closely associated with the composer. O’Connor needed most of this set to warm up her dark-hued mezzo, but her interpretive skill shone through; she communicated the sentiment of the songs without schmaltz. She was on surer vocal footing in Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, heard in Hans Werner Henze’s orchestral arrangement, with an almost cello-like warmth in her lower register and great attention to textual detail throughout. Runnicles superbly balanced the austere strings and beguiling winds employed in the orchestration.

An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave, by Atlanta-based composer Carlos Simon, was the concert’s wild card. Originally written as a string quartet, it was expanded here for larger forces, which added a lushness that called to mind Samuel Barber or George Walker. Still, the musical sweep did not obfuscate the work’s deeper meaning. Simon composed the piece in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; in a program note, he wrote that it has grown into “an artistic reflection dedicated to those who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power”. In a sad parallel, the performance was recorded a day after a gunman killed eight people, mostly Asian Americans, in Atlanta. In a way, the ASO’s passionate performance served as an elegy for those lives senselessly lost.

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream