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ASO Music Director Robert Spano conducts the orchestra.
Thursday night's vibrant performance of Oliver Knussen's "Two Organa" alone was worth the price of admission. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

Review: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plays new music from an old and dear friend

If Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano deserves commendation for one thing, it’s his singular commitment to bringing modern composers to the forefront. Such a keen awareness keeps the ASO’s catalog from becoming stale and stuffy — and it lights a small candle of hope that new classical music will be as vibrant and vital on the world’s stage as it deserves to be.

Thursday’s ASO concert began with a most welcome surprise: Two Organa by the late British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. A friend of the ASO and five-time guest conductor, Knussen is perhaps best known for his operatic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, a close collaboration with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

Spano opened the evening with a spoken introduction that detailed his close friendship with Knussen and offered deep insight into the nature of the two pieces that make up Two Organa. It’s a perspective Spano is uniquely qualified to give: He was with Knussen while the music was being composed. It was here that Spano summarized the work beautifully: Knussen was an exceptionally large man — he couldn’t stand at full height inside his tiny cottage home — yet he was deeply fascinated by the details of toys, model trains and other tiny objects.

It seems an odd parallel to draw until one hears the music. Intricate polyrhythms dance in and out in a kind of jaunty, ordered chaos. It’s a marvelous, captivating harmonic realm that slides into the ear sideways, as if replacing traditional counterpoint with a dense array of rhythmic intricacies that, no matter how wild they became, never fail to culminate in marvelous bursts of harmonic cohesion. The effect was like watching a skyscraper being built with all of the many thousands of workers running to and fro on their separate jobs only finally see the complete tower gleaming in the sunlight. Two Organa was, at only six minutes, worth the cost of admission.

Modernism was clearly the choice of the evening as the second piece proved. Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in 1954, is a far denser and more challenging piece. It gives each section of the orchestra a solo turn, yet rewards primarily with its stirring percussion, which calls comparison to Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation with its thick forest of cymbals, snares, woodblocks and mallets. 

There is a penetrating, almost unnerving presence for the percussion in Concerto for Orchestra. It smashes and imposes, stomps and fumes, then softens eerily to a single crystalline pulse with the melodic aspect of the orchestra relegated to lush arpeggiated runs in the background. To this end, the ASO’s percussion section, led by Joseph Petrasek and William Wilder, commanded the spotlight with all the finely controlled ferocity the piece required.

ASO violinist David Coucheron performs a solo.
Concertmaster David Coucheron played the second half of Beethoven’s concerto with fire and passion.

To cap off a set of daring choices, the evening closed with Beethoven’s familiar Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, notable for being the composer’s only foray into the violin concerto format. Written in a flurry as Beethoven rushed to meet a deadline, the work received mixed reviews in its initial performance and remains, to my ears, an odd moment of pause in a catalog that is otherwise unquestionably sublime. For me, a successful performance of the piece is largely contingent on the interpretation of the violin soloist, in this case ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron.  

Always a delight to hear, Coucheron brought his usually silky-sweet tone, smoothly and majesticly blending well with the larger ensemble. It was, however, in the first movement’s solo sections that Coucheron’s interpretation failed to hit its stride. Beethoven’s violin concerto is, ultimately, a forum for soloist virtuosity and is best handled when played with furious abandon and plenty of abrasive, street-fighting tenacity.

It’s clear in the writing that Beethoven didn’t intend for this concerto to be easy listening and when the orchestra fell silent, allowing Coucheron to command full focus, there was simply too much delicacy and not enough raw, shrieking ugliness. Beethoven was, in so many ways, a forerunner of heavy-metal music — which is why metal luminaries from Yngwie Malmsteen to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra have reinterpreted his work. That hard tonal edge should be apparent in the soloist’s bowing, and it just wasn’t there. The dark, fearsome demon at the heart of the solo stirred and grunted but never fully awakened.

This should not, at all, discount Coucheron’s performance throughout the rest of the work. Indeed, in the second movement, with its far more pastoral atmosphere, Coucheron shined most magnificently. Then, as if hit with a sudden burst of passion, he delivered fully in the closing Rondo Allegro, finally stoking the palpable fire of his fullest potential. It was a stunning closer to an already transcendental evening.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.