On March 21, Kennesaw State University hosted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a special performance of 19th-century romanticism, featuring the music of Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Piano No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, and Robert Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. The performance will repeat at the ASO’s home base of Atlanta Symphony Hall tonight at 8 p.m.
Years of live music reviews — from the finely sculpted halls of symphonies to the rancid basements of punk rock — have made me aware of the importance of the acoustics necessary to bring music to its full potential at a concert. While the acoustic design of Atlanta Symphony Hall at Woodruff has become as much a part of the ASO’s signature sound as the individual players, I was curious to hear how the change of venue would affect the performance.
Where the ASO’s traditional haunt at Symphony Hall has a sonically pristine curvature, the Morgan Concert Hall is more rectangular and creates a sense of distance from the music. While jarring at first, this dramatic shift offers the opportunity to hear balanced sound regardless of one’s position in the chamber.
Such detachment gave the opening bars of Brahms’ Concerto for Piano No. 1 the stunning gravitas it deserves, giving the listener the effect of staring down the front line of an invading army. Brahms is a master of the ominous and the imperialistic, but amidst the brash moments of demonic darkness are moonlit dances with fairies and forest nymphs that demand gentle blending of strings and woodwinds.
Guest pianist Benjamin Grosvenor displayed outstanding dynamic control and gave the opening Maestoso a worried ambiance that was simultaneously contemplative and chaotic, like contemplating matters of deep personal concern in the midst of a hurricane. The ASO was with Grosvenor all the way, contouring those wonderful phrases with a delicate touch. Guest conductor Peter Oundjian — who has stepped on the podium as a guest conductor for the ASO every year for the past four years — was crucial in the endeavor, providing gentle, expertly controlled motions that informed the ASO’s smooth accompaniment.
It was in performing Brahms’ Adagio that the ASO showed a moment of strain — though nicely blended throughout, certain string lines felt blunt in relation to the prominence of the piano. Most notably, concertmaster David Coucheron’s guide tones seemed to not quite accentuate as strongly as they should. It was an uncharacteristically weak moment for the ASO, but one that was redeemed in the closing Rondo. The finale showcased both Grosvenor’s magnificent virtuosity and the tonal depth of the accompaniment beautifully.
The second performance of the evening — Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra — is a longtime personal favorite, as is Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, which inspired Strauss’ work. The piece’s opening melody has long been a part of the modern zeitgeist thanks to its many appearances in popular culture, with 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most notable.
But the work as a whole contains additional moments of towering grandeur, and the ASO tackled it with grace. Not a piece given to soloists, Strauss’ often blindingly chaotic tribute to the pursuit of human greatness is instead a work that demands blunt force energy from every member of the ensemble. It was that energy that the ASO delivered in spades with looks of brimming enthusiasm across the face of each individual player.