Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

Boyish guest conductor James Gaffigan, of Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony,
made a rousing debut with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Young English composer Thomas Ades is one of the greatest things going in modern classical music. His Atlanta fan club might not be huge just yet, judging from the acreage of empty seats at Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. But he definitely has one big fan: violinist Leila Josefowicz. For several years now, she has devoted a substantial amount of time to performing one of Ades’ works with major orchestras, and now she’s brought it to us.

The piece, a violin concerto titled “Concentric Paths,” is in some ways rather modest. It’s only 20 minutes long. Its texture is, for the most part, austere and transparent. It’s not “program music,” and it doesn’t get scary in terms of tonality.  But, oh, what pleasures lurk inside.

In the first movement, “Rings,” a minimalist figure becomes an explosion of brass. “Paths,” the second movement, is the most important and successful. It starts as a gripping dialogue between the soloist and woodwinds; then it slows down and involves the whole orchestra, especially the brass, and calls for the soloist to play at the extreme high end of the instrument’s range. It’s quite beautiful, but because the way Ades writes music is so fresh and original, the ear is constantly figuring out how to take it all in — an experience we get all too rarely in the concert hall. In the final movement, “Rounds,” Josefowicz plays the same tune at one speed (slower), while the orchestra laps her, and it all ends in a big explosion.

Given her involvement with this piece, it’s surprising to discover that it wasn’t written for Josefowicz (it was performed by Anthony Marwood at the 2005 premiere). But Josefowicz is a worthy champion, dealing with the work’s amazing virtuosic demands with aplomb. In many ways, it’s a thankless piece. Josefowicz often has to play at breakneck speed at the extreme top and bottom of the violin’s range, but it’s incorporated into the work so subtly and gently that she doesn’t get to show off. Some of the hardest riffs are played at relatively low volume, and she never gets a big, wild cadenza.

As Josefowicz arrived on stage, it was quickly apparent that, well, there is likely to be another member of her family very soon. A glance at her website confirmed that the concerts immediately following this one have been canceled. After her performance, she came out, sat in the audience and listened to the rest of the show. That showed a respect for her fellow artists and an interest in what they were doing.

Leading the orchestra was a charismatic young conductor making his Atlanta debut, 32-year-old James Gaffigan, chief conductor of Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. The Ades concerto was a good test for him, as it places harsh demands on pretty much everybody. Gaffigan pulled it together nicely, delicately balancing the intricate play between the orchestra and soloist and staying true to the composer’s dance between lyricism and playfulness. Gaffigan’s gestures were big, bold and very clear.

Boyish in appearance, he arrived dressed in what we used to call a “Nehru jacket” (black, of course), perhaps an homage to Robert Spano, the ASO’s music director.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Sinfonia from “L’isola disabitata” (“The Desert Island”), a little sturm-and-drang gem that apparently has never been performed here before. Lively, it made for a good appetizer.

After the break we got some Wagner, whose operas really need to be experienced in the opera house for context. For various reasons, that doesn’t happen here, with the exception of an occasional staging of “The Flying Dutchman.” Fortunately, the ASO is happy to play bits and pieces during the season, and so we at least get that. On this night, the bit we got was the Prelude to the first act of “Lohengrin.”

Just as Gaffigan was poised to begin, someone’s watch began chiming. The conductor reacted instantly with a funny face and a clever, pulsing pirouette toward the audience. After the hour had been announced, he said, “It’s Richard calling — ‘Don’t go too fast!’” This moment, even more than the mini-interview he conducted with Josefowicz before the concerto, showcased a gift for connecting with an audience.

As for the tempo, Wagner probably never could have imagined the piece being performed as slowly as the pace set by Gaffigan. Things were a lot faster in Wagner’s day (you can check out the performance times in the archives of the various opera houses, including those conducted by Wagner himself). But orchestras are better now and conductors such as Gaffigan can get away with a more spacious approach. This was lush, plush and on the sweet side.

After the Wagner, a guy arrived with a hand truck to haul away the podium, a rather gregarious way to announce that Debussy’s “La Mer” would be conducted without a score. It soon became apparent that Gaffigan knows his way around Debussy. This was a lively, rather stormy view of the ocean. But Gaffigan managed to pump things up without making it seem unnatural. The kid is good, and the orchestra came through for him.

This concert will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m.

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