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Spano and the orchestra rose to the occasion Thursday with the injury to Watts. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Review: ASO performs Beethoven on the fly after guest pianist André Watts injures back

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano, performed the first of three concerts in the final week of its 2015-16 subscription season Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. It was intended to be an all-Brahms affair, but guest pianist André Watts became indisposed as of early Thursday morning due to back pain, and was unable to play.

A quick decision was made to substitute Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major for the piece that was to feature Watts, Brahms’ lengthy Piano Concerto No. 2in B-flat major. For the remainder of the program, Spano and the orchestra performed Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, as originally planned.

It is anticipated that Watts will perform with the ASO in the remaining two subscription concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, but one must consider there is no guarantee when an artist’s illness is involved. He is also no spring chicken: Watts will turn 70 years old on June 20. A longtime favorite with Atlanta audiences, Watts’ most recent performances with the ASO were in September 2013, when he performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, and before that in March 2012, when he performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The ASO previously performed it in November with Spano conducting, and before that in April of the previous year with Donald Runnicles at the helm. It is a grand exponent of core symphonic repertoire which the ASO has played many times, and Spano needed a familiar piece which uses the same size orchestra as the Brahms concerto it was replacing. (It actually requires two horns less.) The 7th Symphony was an ideal fit.

That’s a good thing since the orchestra had less than an hour of rehearsal on Thursday morning to prepare it. With an orchestra of the ASO’s caliber, such a curveball is sometimes greeted as a positive challenge and the musicians rose to the occasion. They gave Beethoven’s music a cohesive performance under Spano’s baton that was remarkably fresh, energized and palpably alive.

Of course, Watts’ pianistic acumen was missed, but if he is also unable to perform on Saturday or Sunday, the Beethoven 7th as it was performed on Thursday night is a fitting substitute. Nevertheless, we do wish Watts a full and speedy recovery in advance of the weekend’s remaining concerts.

Although absent the hot electrical edge of the preceding Beethoven, after intermission the ASO offered up a bit of nobility and broader lyricism with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. While its mood often invites comparison with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the pairing with the 7th works well, another fortuitous aspect. It was a warmly cheerful performance, often pastoral in its sentiments, with a sunny, optimistic final movement that capped off the work nicely with its brassy, triumphant conclusion.

It was a good, respectable ending of the season for Spano, who recently returned from Australia where he conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival. Among the works Spano performed there with the Melbourne symphony were two “city-themed” works written for the ASO, both depicting aspects of Atlanta: Michael Kurth’s “Everything Lasts Forever” and Jennifer Higdon’s “City Scape.”

Following this week’s season finale concerts with the ASO, Spano heads to Brazil to conduct the São Paulo Symphony. After that, he will spend two months at Aspen Music Festival, where he is music director, before heading back to Atlanta to perform his own music in an expanded version of cloth with choreographer Lauri Stallings and her dance performance company, glo, September 7-11 at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard. The ASO’s 2016-17 season kicks off the following week at Symphony Hall.