The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert last night featured works in which composers battled states of depression and forged masterpieces from them. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, is a lament for the Lost Generation of World War I, while Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 explores his depressive episode in 1844 and subsequent recovery. The program, which was enthusiastically received, repeats Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27.
The evening’s tone was set by the energetic, precise but always fun presence of Carlos Kalmar, the Uruguayan conductor, and by the lyrical and introspective performances of the rising British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Kalmar is the music director of the Oregon Symphony and has been for the last 16 years. Kanneh-Mason is an international celebrity who performed in 2018 at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle. Kanneh-Mason — age 20 — is still a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. Fans of Kanneh-Mason will want to explore his online performances, some of which include as many as five of his six talented siblings.
The evening began with a rarely performed comic gem, the “Overture di Ballo” by the British composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900), of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. This work demonstrated Kalmar’s highly expressive yet precise approach to the podium. He highlighted many instrument families in the orchestra, in particular the brass and winds, who have beautiful passage work in the overture. He was able to indicate a high level of intensity with very little effort, enabling the orchestra to sometimes lead. This collaborative, supportive approach set an atmosphere of trust that inspired the ASO to play at its very best.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, is a highly demanding work that only a few soloists worldwide can pull off. After hearing Jacqueline du Pré’s iconic interpretation, her teacher, Mstislav Rostropovich, stopped playing the work. Against this high bar, Kanneh-Mason’s performance was notable for its smooth coordination with the orchestra, long-breathed phrases, deft handling of surprising moments and lyrical approach to the work’s intimate, introspective moments.
At 20 years old, Kanneh-Mason has room to improve. At this point, his technique and musicality are exemplary, with a vibrato that ranges from intense and passionate to gentle and intimate. Other listeners may disagree, but I found that he underplayed certain grief-stricken, pathos-laden moments in the first movement of Elgar’s work. Against Du Pré’s interpretation, which portrayed even each single note with its own spectrum of colors, Kanneh-Mason’s louder solos sometimes stuck to a fortissimo level, thereby limiting his options for nuance and contrast, whether dynamic or textural. A concerto narrows the interpretative options for soloists since they have to be heard over the orchestra. In response, they have to figure out which nuances will be audible and effective to the audience.
Despite these minor quibbles, the first movement of Elgar’s concerto was haunting and sensitive, with Kanneh-Mason a master storyteller. The second movement — a lilting scherzo — featured his large dynamic range and many playful surprises. The third movement, Adagio, featured Elgar at his most autumnal and pensive. The fourth movement is an ironic, bitter march that Kanneh-Mason played with great articulation. At the end of the concerto, although tragedy reigns, there is an attempt toward renewal and hope. The audience seemed to appreciate Kanneh-Mason’s peaceful, still expressive moments.
Kanneh-Mason played an encore in which his large dynamic range and introspective approach were highly effective and soulful. With successful crossover arrangements of non-classical songs like this one, he has the potential to increase the audience for classical concerts. I look forward to him performing again in Atlanta in the near future.
The program closed with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 61. In the Sostenuto assai, Kalmar brought out the Bach-like, contrapuntal writing with aplomb. In the Allegro, Schumann’s angular syncopations were celebrated in their twisted glory and brought out with clarity so the movement did not become simply frenetic and martial. In Scherzo: Allegro vivace, a faster tempo brought out the movement’s silly games, especially in the Trio. By this point, it was clear that the orchestra would willingly follow Kalmar on any tempo he chose.
The Adagio espressivo — which displays the fruits of Robert and Clara Schumann’s contrapuntal studies in 1844 — was notable for its delicate wind playing, which Kalmar highlighted and could be heard with ease. The finale, Allegro molto vivace, was overjoyed but clear. Kalmar wisely chose a tempo that was not too fast. Emerging from all of the activity was the quotation from the last song from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte, which recurs in many of Schumann’s most celebrated works, such as his Op. 17, “Fantasie.” Whereas this quotation was a symbol of his union with his wife in the earlier work, here it is a universal, Beethovenian triumph over sadness.
At the concert’s close, Kalmar acknowledged the wind, brass and violin sections of the ASO. It was a fitting conclusion to the night’s many fine collaborations.