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Spano led the ASO in a triumphant Carnegie Hall concert that celebrated the legacy of Robert Shaw. (Photo by Chris Lee)

For the Atlanta Symphony, 2015–16 was a nod to the past, with a look to the future

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concluded its 2015–16 season this month, its 71st year of existence, and also the orchestra’s first full season since the highly charged lockout of late 2014. It was at once a season of rebuilding and also one of recognizing its own luminous history and development into one of America’s leading orchestras. In particular, the orchestra’s partnership with its esteemed resident chorus came to the fore with a celebration of the 100th centennial of the birth of Robert Shaw, the music director who brought the ASO into national relevance.

While traveling to Australia last month, music director Robert Spano summed up the season this way in an email: “This season we celebrated the 100th birthday of Robert Shaw, and in a sense that meant celebrating ourselves, because we are living his legacy. That’s the beauty of a living tradition: not the husk of what once was, but the vitality of what continues to thrive and evolve. That is also the case with the music created hundreds of years ago that continues to live through us today. By honoring and attending to our roots, to our past, we better envision and cultivate our future, buoyed by the rushing current generated by our forebears.”

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus opened the season under Spano’s baton with a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as the “Resurrection Symphony.” The nearly 90-minute work — splendidly performed by the orchestra, chorus and soloists — set a metaphor for the season’s hopes and expectations, after so much organizational turmoil suffered over recent years. Even if unintended when originally programmed, the implications of “Resurrection” were not lost among attentive observers. Another early-season choral highlight was Verdi’s “Requiem” in November.

The ASO's world-class chorus stands on the shoulders of Shaw's legacy. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The ASO’s world-class chorus stands on the shoulders of Shaw’s legacy. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Notably, the ASO Chamber Chorus rendered an excellent performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” led by director of choruses Norman Mackenzie, as a one-time Sunday afternoon concert in early April. It was the first time the chorus had sung an entirely a cappella concert in Symphony Hall. In March, Mackenzie also led the ASO and Choruses in a concert of choral-orchestral classics closely associated with Shaw’s career.

One downside of the season was a disappointing encounter with Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” in January, led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. However, in the purely orchestral realm Runnicles led a truly masterful performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in April.

The undoubted focal point of the season was when the ASO and Chorus went to New York to perform Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” at Carnegie Hall on April 30, Robert Shaw’s 100th birthday, to critical success. That performance also included a new choral work commissioned by the ASO, Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Zohar.” Both were performed in Atlanta earlier in the month, with Leshnoff’s piece receiving its premiere. It was the second Leshnoff work to be premiered this season, the first was his Symphony No. 2, back in November.

Robert Spano takes on one of Shaw's favorite pieces: Verdi's “Requiem." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Spano led the ASO on one of Shaw’s favorite pieces: Verdi’s “Requiem.” (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Another successful premiere, in early February, was “A Thousand Words” by composer and ASO contrabassist Michael Kurth. Not so appealing was the premiere of Mark Grey’s “Frankenstein Symphony,” later that month. Though not premieres, other welcomed compositions by living Atlanta-connected composers included Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and Alvin Singleton’s “Different River.”

Among notable guest conducting appearances were those by Thomas Søndergård, Marc Piollet, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Lothar Zagrosek; high points among guest instrumentalists were pianist Javier Perianes, violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Jonathan Biss.

The subscription season concluded in mid-June with what was to have been an all-Brahms concert, but guest pianist André Watts had issues with his back and couldn’t perform. Spano and the orchestra quickly — and brilliantly — substituted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 for the concerto that Watts was scheduled to play, paired with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Watts remained indisposed for his entire scheduled run. Nevertheless, the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies made for a fine conclusion to the formal season.

After that, the ASO finished off the month with a handful of pops and community concerts. Most notable was another kind of “resurrection” — that of the orchestra’s return after almost a decade to the Oak Hill quadrant of Piedmont Park, where assistant conductor Joseph Young led a free, open-air concert before a massive audience, estimated by one official to be over 10,000, reflecting the size of audience that would regularly show during the golden years of the ASO’s park concerts years ago.

Jane Little walks on stage for one of her final performances before her death. (Photo by Dustin Chambers)
Jane Little walks on stage for one of her final performances before her death. (Photo by Dustin Chambers)

Since he joined the ASO’s conducting staff in 2014, Young has become known to Atlanta audiences primarily through park and community concerts as well as directing the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. He made his ASO subscription concert debut this season in late May.

The ASO also saw the passing of two active roster musicians, principal piccolo Carl David Hall, in early February, and contrabassist Jane Little, who collapsed on stage in May and later died. Little made history for becoming the world’s longest-serving musician in a professional orchestra, marking a career of 71 seasons with the ASO. Yet another loss was Louis Lane — who was co-conductor for the ASO from 1977 to 1983, then its principal guest conductor through 1988, and passed away in February at the age of 92.

On a happier note, the ASO continued its successful fundraising campaign for the Musicians’ Endowment Fund, at a pace faster than anticipated. These monies are exclusively intended for expansion of the orchestra’s roster to 88 musicians. The ASO auditioned and hired six new musicians this season: principal contrabass Colin Corner, section bassists Karl Fenner and Daniel Tosky, principal bassoon Andrew Brady, and section horns Ernesto Tovar Torres and Jaclyn Rainey.

There are still positions left to fill, several currently at or near the end of the audition process. One looks forward to seeing what new faces will be added at the beginning of the coming season. It was a year with historical markers for the ASO, but also a foreshadowing of growth toward the future.