This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra program presented three 19th-century works that have become modern concert hall staples, with guest conductor Lothar Zagrosek making his ASO debut. He has had a long and distinguished career culminating most recently as Chief Conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin (formerly Berlin Symphony). He is also well-known to European audiences for his operatic work.

The Mendelssohn overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage starts out as a rather gloomy affair in the low strings, but eventually, after various musical takes on storms and waves, becomes a more light-hearted voyage as the sailors see land. Maestro Zagrosek kept a strong beat with his right hand, but seemed to provide little other direction to the orchestra, save turning to the cellos from time-to-time to cajol them a bit, but overall this was a sturdy performance.

Javier Perianes © Josep Molina
Javier Perianes
© Josep Molina

Schumann's Piano Concerto featured Spaniard Javier Perianes. The first movement, marked Allegro affettuoso, begins with a grand flourish by the strings and timpani, which may account for why the timpani were placed on risers above the orchestra in the center rear of the stage. There was certainly no problem hearing them, and it did seem to un-muddy their sound a bit. The clarinet features prominently in the first movement, especially playing in tandem with the piano. In this performance, the clarinet was sometimes was not legato enough, which detracted a bit from the music’s flow. Perianes played the cadenzas powerfully, but as in other performances in Symphony Hall, the piano sounded a bit hollow and echoic, likely due to its placement in front of the orchestra.

The second movement Intermezzo was appropriately delicate, with the piano providing a nice accompaniment to the orchestra. The cellos and violas were lush and Perianes successfully brought out the warm romantic feel of the movement. At the end of the second movement, the piano and orchestra were not always together.  The Allegro vivace third movement began strongly and Perianes provided the right amount of pianistic color throughout the rest of the movement. He had good dynamics and the ASO provided competent accompaniment. This too, was a solid performance, but not particularly exciting or memorable. The usually ultra-enthusiastic Atlanta audience was relatively restrained in its response to this performance and to Maestro Zagrosek and pianist Perianes.

Brahms' Symphony no. 1 in C minor is the kind of piece that the ASO can do so well. With its weighty sound and brilliant reeds and woodwinds, its timbre is just right for late 19th-century Romantic German music. The first movement introduction had the right touch of solemnity and urgency to make it both dramatic and flowing. The exposition was well-played with the elevated timpani providing spotlighted punctuation to the “fate” motif. The development section was rollicking with precise string playing. After the recapitulation and coda, Maestro Zagrosek brought the movement to a gentle close.

The Andante sostenuto was lush, with enthusiastic playing by principal oboe, Elizabeth Koch Tiscone. She used her whole body to infuse energy and feeling into the music, even rising slightly from her chair from time-to-time. David Coucheron’s solo with the horns was beautifully played. However, the horns seemed to have some difficulty throughout this and subsequent movements with dynamics. For example, they would begin a phrase too loudly and then did not adjust their volume, resulting in some odd balances, where accents almost became the primary theme. The final movement was introduced with appropriate foreboding in the strings and timpani. Pizzicati strings introduced more turmoil, and this was followed by some great woodwind playing, led again by the oboist. After the grand fanfare-like section featuring the horns and winds, the wonderful main theme was  introduced by the rich sounding strings. Zagrosek took the theme at a brisk pace and in the subsequent development section, some of the passages were not played with sharp precision. The rousing ending was constructed nicely so as to build the excitement and momentum, with some great support by the trumpets. The final movement was the most successful of this performance; with Maestro Zagrosek appearing to lead with greater enthusiasm than he showed in the earlier works on the program. In all, this was a competent and perfectly satisfactory performance of favorite Romantic-era pieces, but it fell short of being inspired or exciting.