This week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra stream was an all-Ravel concert that drew a link between the composer’s 20th-century music and the world of Baroque.  Le Tombeau de Couperin was Ravel’s stylistic nod to a composer who lived some 200 years before him, as well as an homage to friends who had died in World War 1. Its four-movement orchestral version is drawn from the original six-movement piano version. One of its most salient characteristics is the demands it places on the oboe in the first and third sections, here played remarkably well by principal Elizabeth Tischone.

Kelley O'Connor, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony perform Shéhérazade
© Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

The ASO appeared to be at about half of its full complement, which drained a bit of lushness out of the performance. The musicians played with great skill but the overall performance lacked the refined passion that makes this work so compelling. The dynamics seemed compressed, stripping energy from the elegant music. This might have been a function of the musicians’ isolation from each other, recording engineer choices, and microphone characteristics and placements. Thus, what conductor Robert Spano was hearing could have been quite alive, yet quite different from what the video stream presented. 

The second piece was Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade (arr. Shevtsov), based on the work of poet Tristan Klingsor. The work is largely the composer’s impressions of what he imagined “the exotic east” must be like. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor sang surrounded by plexiglass, yet her performance was bold and vivid. She seemed to inhabit the characters the composer was writing about in each section: the wanderer dreaming of the orient in the first movement; the young slave girl longing for her lover; and the third movement where the speaker extols the charms of an androgynous youth. Camera work in the second movement was impressive where the flute solo shared a split-screen with O’Connor. Spano and the ASO supported her beautifully but, as in Le Tombeau, the performance lacked lushness and transparency.  

The final work was the Mother Goose Suite, a work that highlights the woodwinds and solo violin. The Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty was gossamer sounding, with a wonderful intimacy, highlighted by a sparkling performance by concertmaster David Coucheron. In Hop-o’-My-Thumb the percussion added color layered on excellent flute solos. The Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas was charming with many colorful orchestral effects incorporating tam-tam, harp and xylophone. The waltz-like Conversation of Beauty and the Beast featured a powerful contrabassoon solo. The finale, The Fairy Garden, built to a grand orchestral finale, including some beautiful solo violin passages. Here again, the ending seemed a bit compressed and thin.

Producing a compelling live orchestral performance is difficult, even with the most skilled of technicians. Multiply those difficulties by requirements to social distance and it's surprising that a good product can be developed. The ASO is assertively facing the digital challenge and, so far, it is working surprisingly well. 

This performance was reviewed from the ASO's video stream