The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened its 2020-21 season as it should: by focusing on the music rather than the virus. For the opening night of its “Reimagined” season, Robert Spano, conductor and music director, selected two stalwarts of the classical symphonic repertoire: Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major, the “Jupiter”; and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

While the program was traditional, the format was anything but. This was an online affair from the act of purchasing a ticket, to settling down in a cozy spot of one’s choosing, to logging on to the orchestra’s website with a passcode at a given time. But once one left the digital realm, the music assumed and retained its power over an unseen audience listening and viewing from around the world.

And such music it was! Without so much as a reference to the virus, Spano led the orchestra in a commanding performance of Mozart’s final symphony, an emotionally satisfying work of technical wizardry and grace. But the highlight of the evening came as soloist Gil Shaham joined the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Gil Shaham
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

The somewhat smaller number of musicians, due to social distancing, meant it was less of a stretch for the soloist to be heard above the orchestra. This gave Shaham ample opportunity to indulge in his love affair with those extremely fragile high notes. I cannot recall the last time – if ever – that I have been so transported by the delicate touch of a soloist in this familiar concerto. Shaham provided the expected power and assertiveness we associate with Beethoven, but also infused his interpretation with a relaxed sensibility, as though bow never touched string, but hovered like a breeze over an Aeolian harp.

The second movement Larghetto revealed a continuing balance between orchestra and violin. Shaham’s technique was smooth, with a perfection in pitch and phrasing. He displayed a lightness of spirit which some artists either lack or avoid when interpreting the work of the grumpy-looking master. I could only imagine the smile that Shaham was wearing under his black mask, suggested by the crinkling around his eyes.

Robert Spano
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Both orchestra and soloist seamlessly glided into the final movement with its rollicking, 6/8 Rondo. Here, the overall tone became more cheerful than reflective. Especially delightful were the passages shared by solo violin and bassoon before the cadenza. There are, in fact, two cadenzas, a little mini-cadenza a dozen minutes before the end – phenomenally fast and closer to being a showoff piece than anything else in this performance – and the full cadenza two or so minutes later.

Shaham’s style, which suggests the artist has totally immersed himself in the music, may not be to everyone’s liking. But in my estimation, he is one of the greats, and the Atlantic Symphony under Spano’s direction is a more than worthy orchestral partner. Pandemic or not, this was living music at its finest.

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream