After several days of hard, heavy rain, Thursday’s twilight hosted blue sky just a bit before the opening work on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert.  But little did we know that the performances themselves would bring their own kind of sunshine to Symphony Hall.

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Emmanuel Villaume, Andrew von Oeyen and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
© Jeff Roffman

This week’s guest conductor was Emmanuel Villaume, presently music director of the Prague Philharmonia and the Dallas Opera. His program began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The 21-minute long composition was a gift to his wife, Cosima, who also happened to be the daughter of Franz Liszt. After a revision, the work was scored for a chamber orchestra-sized group and it is filled with references to the couple’s children, their life and love. Wagner is famous for his long operas, and to some degree, the Idyll seems long; it's repetitive but sweet with its main drama contained in a large crescendo toward the end of the piece. Villaume and the ASO were magnificent, however. Villaume is a conductor in constant motion, as he angles his body to face the section of the orchestra to which he wants to impart special direction. His hands continually mold the air as if giving secret hand signs to musicians. This particular performance was notable for some incredibly fine performances by the woodwinds, both individually and as a group, warm in tone and precise in execution. 

Piano soloist Andrew von Oeyen joined the orchestra to perform Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major. For whatever reason, Liszt’s music seems less frequently performed in US concert halls than it was maybe fifty years ago and this was the first performance of this concerto in Atlanta for seven years. It was incredible! While Von Oeyen is not a particularly animated pianist, his power and musicality are undeniable. He and Villaume were fully together in their conception of this music and they made frequent eye-contact throughout the performance as if to ensure a shared vision. The musicians seemed maximally inspired in their playing, especially notable in the wonderful unison of the silky-sounding violins. In addition to the first-rate piano playing, Villaume imparted a forward momentum to the music from start to finish in a performance that never stagnated nor lost tautness. In response to numerous curtain calls, von Oeyen treated the audience to a sublime performance of Liszt’s Liebestraum, nuanced with some well-placed rubatos

The final work on the program was Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony, also known as the “Organ Symphony” although the organ is treated as just another section of the orchestra, rather than playing a solo role. In addition to the organ, the symphony features a piano, scored for two and four hands. With transparency in mind, I must confess to having great affection for this work. It is lyrical, bombastic, beautifully orchestrated and thrillingly climactic. This performance was stunning.  Again, Villaume imparted a sense of forward motion that was remarkable; the long arc of the music was always apparent. For its part, the orchestra was at the peak of its performing skills. Again, the violins performed with wonderful precision and ensemble. The digital organ was played with aplomb by Peter Marshall. The organ sounded full, realistic, and with plenty of powerful pedal notes. On rare occasions, the organ was just a bit loud, but that is a minor quibble. 

Overall, this was a very fine concert, with a seasoned conductor who knows how to make the music sound fresh and who seems to be able to inspire musicians to perform at their best. That, in addition to a powerful piano soloist who impressed with his musicianship, made this a stand-out performance.