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Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker gave a beautiful reading of Strauss' "Four Last Songs." (Photos by Rand Lines)

Review: ASO makes moments to remember with Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”

Over the past couple of decades, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has been lucky with two contrasting artistic leaders: music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles. They’ve each left a legacy of sensationally memorable concerts.

Spano’s programs were often the more interesting — or perhaps more artfully planned — juxtaposing music in unexpected combinations. Newer pieces typically had us thinking as much about the living composer as about the familiar classic that followed. At his best, Spano made everything reflect off everything else: New works seemed deeper; old works seemed fresher.

Sir Donald, like Spano, is in his final official year with the ASO. The Scotsman  returned to Symphony Hall Thursday with his own type of program: more conventional, perhaps, and highlighted by big, blocky, late-Romantic works that stand alone — each in its own world. 

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony are two such pieces. They didn’t help or hinder each other as they sat side by side. Under Runnicles’ left-handed baton, each was gloriously realized. The concert will be repeated Saturday evening at Symphony Hall.

Melody Eötvös
The ASO performed “The Deciding Machine” by Australian composer Melody Eötvös.

The short opening work likewise needed no connection to the rest of the program. “The Deciding Machine” is by Australian American composer Melody Eötvös, born in 1984. (Her bio makes no connection to the famous Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös.) This past summer, Runnicles led the premiere at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, where he’s music director and where several ASO musicians have a sweet summer gig.

The impetus for the commission gets a little murky. Intended for summer of 2020, postponed due to Covid, it’s designed to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary (a stale idea). It’s also the centennial of American women’s suffrage, and the fact that Jackson Hole elected an all-female town council in 1920, which led to thoughts on pioneering women in general and to Ada Lovelace King specifically. Daughter of an English mathematician and the poet Lord Byron, Lovelace King (1815-1852) created the first algorithm for a proposed mechanical computer known as “The Analytical Engine.” Although abandoned by her father, Lovelace King remained fixated on him throughout her life.

Eötvös’ “The Deciding Machine,” 12 minutes long, is driven by computing and technical imagery. (An endless scroll of tiny zeros and ones were projected on the stage’s back wall to help set the mood.) The music starts with high-pitched rhythmic tapping, like Morse Code, then expanding with restless energy. A second section is brighter, less forward driven, punctuated by tinkly percussion. The jittery code returns, as if to reveal a grand statement that is never quite articulated. There’s what sounds like a “cowboy” section, a quick giddy-up and stampede of forward motion, followed by bright flourishes from solo violin, trumpet, horn. The hoedown seems to morph into a Hungarian-style fiddle tune, earthy and dark.

The narrative rambles a bit, but there’s urgency and unanswered questions throughout the score. It picks up speed and heft, catapulting toward its unknown ending, then finally turns tranquil as a solo violin escorts us into silence. Overall, it’s a clever, attractive work by a budding composer overloaded with ideas and vitality. I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her.

Strauss was inspired by the female voice above all, and his Four Last Songs are so hauntingly beautiful, both lush and opulent, that you want to sink into them and forget that the rest of the world exists.

Although Strauss likely had a hefty Wagnerian soprano voice in mind when he composed these songs — think Isolde or Brünnhilde — there are many voice types that can succeed. To date, American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker has specialized in dramatically intense but vocally lighter music, often by Handel and Mozart. 

But as soon as she sang her first words, it was clear that Stucker is ready for Strauss right now. Runnicles played it like orchestral Strauss, fully expressive, with a soprano soaring over the top — just right. (The German-language poems, by Hesse and Eichendorff, are still under copyright; sadly, the ASO didn’t print or project them, so we couldn’t follow word by word.)

In the first song, “Frühling” (“Spring”), Stucker showed a well-supported range of lower notes, never forced, with creamy tones edged by silver up top. (She might be on a similar vocal trajectory as two other sopranos with Atlanta connections who blossomed into Wagnerian-sized voices: Christine Goerke and Christine Brewer.)

Sir Donald Runnicles
Runnicles led the ASO in a special and moving performance of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.”

Everyone was fully warmed up for the second song, “September,” with soprano and conductor breathing together. Clearly they’d spent a lot of time working through the interpretation. On the wavy, radiant lines “Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt, In den sterbenden Gartentraum” (“Summer smiles, astonished and weak, in the dying garden dream”) Stucker’s singing was meltingly beautiful, and as the song reached its end Jaclyn Rainey entered with her horn solo — lovingly shaped, melancholy and warm. 

Something curious happened starting with the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Going to Sleep”): Once they’d clicked, time seemed to slow down. They weren’t playing the music slower, but it all somehow started taking up more space. After concertmaster David Coucheron’s exquisite violin solo, Stucker matched his vibrato and soared on the words “Und die Seele unbewacht” (“And my soul, unobserved”) as they floated upward. These are the moments we live for.

Here’s a minority opinion: Brahms Symphony No. 1 is totally overrated. Many people seem to love it, and orchestral musicians clearly enjoy playing it. But it’s loaded with received ideas. It’s expertly crafted, as is all of Brahms, yet its grandeur, the pushing of powerful emotions, often feels inauthentic and forced. 

Still, by the time we got to the final movement and that ridiculous, overblown “Beethovenian” ending, I wasn’t surprised when a guy in the audience shouted “Yeah!” the instant it ended. It doesn’t move us so much as push our buttons, like when your favorite college football team scores a touchdown. There’s no nuance in the expected response. Rah-Rah, Go Brahms!

Runnicles marched the symphony along at a good clip, keeping the orchestral musicians on the edges of their chairs. If their Brahms sounded a bit under-rehearsed — the ASO has also been preparing the opera Hansel and Gretel this week — there were abundant highlights along the way, including Elizabeth Koch Tiscione’s gorgeous, liquid oboe playing; reedy, earth-trembling contrabassoon darkness from Juan de Gomar; and Coucheron’s noble and generous violin solo.

But at concert’s end, and despite that guy’s boosterish “Yeah!,” I left the hall thinking about Stucker and the Four Last Songs. The performance was so special I’m ready to get a ticket for Saturday to hear her, and Runnicles’ extraordinary Strauss, one more time before it’s gone.

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Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is currently researching and writing a book on the politics of Baroque opera.

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