The musical cultures of Latin America have enriched the Atlanta Symphony’s programming immeasurably in recent years. Not least, this comes from the orchestra’s close association with Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine with a complicated multiculturalism — the sounds of the Latin street and the Jewish shtetl, with a dose of George Crumb’s unbounded creativity — running through his veins and his brain circuitry.
The first half of this week’s ASO program felt like an event, intertwining the two most compelling Argentine composers of recent decades with a Baroque master. On Friday in Symphony Hall, the orchestra revisited Golijov’s “Last Round,” music with a neo-Baroque appeal that was inspired by his countryman Astor Piazzolla. Then the imaginative and popular violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg introduced Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a tango update of Vivaldi, to the local repertoire. Bliss.
Piazzolla (1921-92) did for the tango what the Strauss family did for the waltz — elevate a popular dance into high art of the concert hall. He was also a drinker and, when drunk, a fighter. Golijov’s “Last Round” (the title comes from Julio Cortázar) merges metaphors of boxing and of the sexy pairing, or combat, of tango dancing. Highlighting the unique qualities of the work, the full ASO string section was divided as two equal ensembles facing each other across the stage — with everyone standing except the cellos.
“Last Round” premiered in 1996 and shows the composer already a passionately and intensely original voice, four years before his epoch-defining “La Pasión según San Marcos.” The ASO, steeped in Golijov’s idiom, delivered an aggressive and beautiful reading — with the contradictions in place. Guest conductor Rossen Milanov, making his ASO debut, was the last-minute replacement for Juanjo Mena, who was apparently ill and unable to travel to Atlanta.
After a brief concerto for stagehands — setting up all those missing chairs — Salerno-Sonnenberg bounded to center stage in her inimitable tough-guy style. In our age of robotic violinists, who parade through the world’s concert halls playing the half-dozen violin concerto classics in exactly the same way, Salerno-Sonnenberg is a treasure. For complex and lamentable reasons, being an original artist today seems like a career risk among violinists. Nadja returns to earlier ideals that prized creativity and originality over mere technical polish. (Photos by Matt Alexandre.)
In Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons,” she was at once daredevil virtuoso, smoky-voiced chanteuse and energizing bandleader. The music holds abundant contradictions: feisty and sultry, vulnerable and confident, jazzy and pristine, nostalgic for the old and confident in the new. ASO cellist Daniel Laufer played with a big, generous sound in “Autumn,” adding to the richness. It’s all so deeply memorable, this music of mordant jubilation.
After intermission, Milanov led Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. His interpretation of the opening movements was generally ponderous, poorly shaped and tension-free. There was a lot of coughing from the audience in the Andantino, which was merely slow rather than heartfelt. A few moments after I’d wondered whether the conductor had lost the audience’s attention, a woman in my vicinity pulled out her smart phone and checked her email. I’ve never seen that before during a performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony.
Yet the Fourth is durably performer-resistant and fail-safe, especially the explosive finale. Milanov let the ASO blare at full power, and they were rewarded with mighty cheers and a standing ovation.