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The ASO performed one full concert this week. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Review: ASO features flutist Jeffrey Khaner, works by Mozart, Ravel and Leshnoff

The ASO performed one full concert this week. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The ASO performed one full concert this week. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured music by Ravel, Jonathan Leshnoff, Debussy and Mozart, led by ASO music director Robert Spano with flutist Jeffrey Khaner as guest soloist. Thursday was the only full performance of the program. The concert was repeated, sans the Debussy, as one of the shortened First Friday events. And Saturday is devoted to the ASO’s annual Symphony Gala featuring Broadway star Audra McDonald.

Thursday evening also featured one of the ASO’s occasional 6:45 p.m. preconcert performances of chamber music. ASO musicians — flutist Christina Smith, harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, percussionists Tom Sherwood and Charles Settle, violinists Christopher Pulgram and John Meisner, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Jennifer Humphreys — performed an attractive collection of works by Damase, Ravel and Debussy. The performance was dedicated to the memory of their ASO colleague, contrabassist Doug Sommer, who recently succumbed to cancer.

The orchestral concert proper opened with a “popular classical” favorite, Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”). Originally for solo piano, the performance of this orchestral transcription felt a bit like a favorite antique toy with somewhat worn edges, some of the entrances a little less than precisely unified. Regardless, its gentle demeanor offered up predicable listening comfort. What was not predicable was a curious musical consequence that came from the “Pavane” immediately preceding Leshnoff’s Flute Concerto.

Khaner, the guest soloist, is principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Worth noting: he was a teacher of ASO principal flute Christina Smith while she was a student at the Curtis Institute. In this ASO concert, Khaner demonstrated his technical ability to stencil and shape each note in a long, sweeping phrase while attending to the overarching expressive flow of the music.

Khaner and Leshnoff first met at a concert in Baltimore, at which Leshnoff gave Khaner some recordings of his music, including his Violin Concerto. Khaner listened and liked what he heard, so the two began talking. Khaner was originally hoping for a sonata for use in recitals. Their subsequent encounters evolved into a discussion about a flute concerto. Khaner’s only caveat was that the technique required of the flute be “orthodox” and not gimmicky. The resulting concerto was premiered in March 2011 by Khaner, with Spano conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. This week’s ASO performances reprise that teaming of Khaner and Spano.

The first movement is based on a four-note motive. The “unexpected consequence” of being preceded by Ravel’s “Pavane” is that the first three notes of Leshnoff’s motive are the same as those of the familiar principal tune of Ravel’s  “Pavane,” just with a different rhythm and emphasis. Without the “Pavane” having just been heard it is unlikely that anyone would have noticed. It was, under the circumstances,  rather glaring, however coincidental.

The second movement starts out with striking chords in the orchestra, then the flute enters with a challenging, running melody that permeates the entire piece. The third features a simple descending figure that appears in transformed guises throughout, evoking a variety of moods. The final movement brings back motives from the previous three in a technical tour de force that feels intuitively the most “American” sounding of the bunch. All in all, the concerto is an effective, well-constructed piece. It is appealing without pandering — admittedly, something currently in vogue with many orchestras when it comes to programming new music.

But within the confines of that aesthetic, and like with his earlier Violin Concerto, the most elusive attribute for Leshnoff as a composer remains a uniquely identifiable voice. One hears a flood of historical influences as well as similar peer voices within this Flute Concerto — contemporaries like Jennifer Higdon and Aaron Jay Kernis come to mind — though one need not parse out what’s identifiably only Leshnoff, unvarnished, to enjoy this credible work.

The second half opened with Debussy’s final orchestral work, “Jeux” (“Games”). Originally written for dance, the score includes some five dozen tempo markings, so the music is always morphing in terms of speed and nuance over its 17-minute duration. The final work of the evening, Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, known by its nickname “Paris,” received a cheerful, modernish rendering from Spano and the orchestra.