The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s webcast performance on Thursday evening was a deck stacked precariously high against its performers: the labyrinthine intricacy of Mozart followed by a young and debuting guest violinist playing Max Bruch’s scorching Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, all carried by a guest conductor with limited time to prepare and kneecapped by social-distancing constraints.
The conductor was New Zealand-born Gemma New, the fiery young sensation who’s already gained widespread acclaim for her work leading Canada’s Hamilton Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, among many others. When queried about the evening’s time and logistical constraints in a pre-show interview, New was poised and in command, elucidating her strategies for preparing the orchestra in a manner that was both calming and invigorating.
The evening began with Joseph Jongen’s Danse lente for Flute and Harp. The brief, tranquil work served as a calming antechamber to the evening’s main event. Taken as a singular work, it was sheer joy: Two ASO principles, flutist Christina Smith and harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, showcased a level of interplay so fluid and effortless that they sounded less like a duo and more like the left and right hands of a single player. Johnson’s ability to intuit and intercept the subtle inflections of Smith’s melody created an almost telepathic aura between them. Perhaps the only criticism was the work’s brevity. While an entire evening of harp and flute duets might be a bridge too far, the performance left a craving for more from this delicately dynamic duo.
With the calming moments of Danse lente behind us, New led the orchestra into the murky waters of uncertainty for the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, “Prague.” In the pre-concert interview, New explained that her approach to Mozart’s work came down to deciding which symphonic style — from baroque to classical — would best carry the piece. She settled on an early-classical-period approach that emphasized a sense of tonal continuity among the players of each instrument. The result was a large-scale orchestra that sounded like a particularly emphatic chamber ensemble.
New’s strategy was well-played — the auditory effect created a sense of bouncy, lightheartedness that is crucial to capturing Mozart’s frequently jovial, humorous tone. A failed interpretation would have been to give it the kind of thundering grandiosity of a Brahms or Beethoven. Instead, New carried the work forward with a breezy, swirling vigor that allowed the players to blast hard and dance nimbly in equal measure. The first of the evening’s challenges was triumphant.
Of particular note was the almost voyeuristic intimacy afforded by the broadcast’s camera set up, letting the audience see the level of depth in New’s conducting. Even half obscured by a COVID mask, her face was rich with detail for the passion of every note that she conveyed, an enthusiastically stark contrast to the normally placid presence of ASO music director Robert Spano. The youthful upstart in New’s persona easily transmitted to the players, inspiring them to a voracious stage presence.
For the finale, the ASO brought guest violinist Randall Goosby to the stage for his ASO debut, performing Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1. Goosby, a child prodigy who began his classical career at age 9 as a soloist with Florida’s Jacksonville Symphony, is the youngest winner of the Sphinx Concerto Competition. He brought a formidable résumé to the table. Guest performers can be a mixed bag — sometimes elevating the symphony to new heights and sometimes throwing a wrench into the machinery of an already well-oiled ensemble.
Within the first moments of Goosby’s performance, all concerns were laid to rest. His playing was transcendental. To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, to listen to Goosby was to be surprised by joy. Aided by the immediacy and depth of the ASO’s soundboard mix, Goosby’s tone walked a perfect balance between silky smooth and gutturally abrasive, conveying the piece’s tumultuous cavalcade of emotions with the expert precision normally associated with folk legends rather than real people. Whether delivering searing long notes or intricate speed runs, each note of Goosby’s performance stood alone as an individual work of art.
It is a profoundly good thing that the concert was recorded on video. Listeners will likely want proof that what they experienced really did happen. The ASO will do well to bring back Goosby and New, preferably to once again share the stage together.