The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra gave an enjoyable performance Thursday night, featuring ASO principal oboe Elizabeth Koch Tiscione and guest conductor James Gaffigan. In addition to music that ranged from the turn of the 20th century to contemporary fare, they also gave the essential nod to Beethoven in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his birthday.
Atlanta Symphony concerts occasionally feature a pre-concert program of chamber music played by various members of the orchestra. Last night, the warm-up act was the Peachtree String Quartet, which is made up of regular ASO musicians. They performed Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, nicknamed for the pizzicato sections that evoke the plucking of harp strings.
The quartet began with a beautifully expressive opening from Sissi Yuqing Zhang on violin. Some of the back and forth between the two violins was unsteady, but there was a wonderfully brooding tension palpable later in the first movement. Zhang stood out with a gorgeous, heartfelt melody in the second movement, but some slight intonation problems began to unfold throughout the group as it progressed into more active material. Not surprisingly, the delicate ending of this movement pulled it all back together.
The group really showed their technical prowess with dramatic dynamic changes and unwavering tempo in the third movement. Thomas Carpenter in particular was brilliant on cello through the more technical passages. Yang-Yoo Kim on viola played a gorgeous variation in the fourth movement, immediately followed by a superbly executed duet between Christopher Pulgram on violin and Carpenter.
American-born James Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Swiss-based Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, was maestro for the evening’s main event. The concert opened with a short work titled “Starburst” by New York composer Jessie Montgomery. At only three minutes in length, this work for string orchestra provided aural imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. With cool bursts in the upper strings over lower string pizzicatos, one could visualize stars exploding into formation. The electrifying crescendo at the end was breathtaking. Gaffigan chose to play the entire piece a second time, much to the audience’s delight.
The ASO rounded out the first half with Beethoven, considered to be a “musical revolutionary, a man who forever changed the course of musical expression.” Although Beethoven went deaf over the course of his career, his Symphony No 1. In C Major was composed while he still had most of his hearing. This piece reflects an 18th century tradition in form and scoring, with smaller string sections and pairs of winds.
Gaffigan couldn’t keep the string pizzicato entrances clean, and the Allegro section was a bit lackluster. But the oboe was sublime, growing out of the texture and soaring over the orchestra several times. A soothing intro from the second violins was followed by a sensitive response from the violas and cellos in the second movement. Although the third movement had its moments of excitement and whimsy, Gaffigan often couldn’t keep the ensemble together. In fact, this seemed to be a problem that overshadowed the whole piece, particularly in the fourth movement.
After intermission, Elizabeth Koch Tiscione gave a delightful performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra in A Minor, a lovely work that is demanding on the oboist. The high degree of difficulty seemed no problem for Tiscione, who has been principal oboe since the 2007-08 season, also plays principal oboe at the Grand Teton Music Festival and is a member of the Atlanta Chamber Players.
Tiscione played brilliantly, but she used a music stand that at times impeded her sound from carrying fully into the hall. She had commanding control over both technical and lyrical moments throughout the first movement, and the orchestra was consistently sensitive to her dynamics. In the second movement, Tiscione’s acrobatic phrases were flawless. Her virtuosity carried through the third movement, although she could have played a bit more rubato in the introspective moments.
The piece ends quietly in a high register for the oboe, and Tiscione sustained it gracefully over the strings. As usual, the orchestra showed mastery of dynamic contrast, giving support to the oboe and taking over with beautiful swells of melody when needed. It was an enchanting performance by Tiscione, and charming when her husband — Michael Tiscione, an ASO trumpet player — brought a large bouquet of flowers on stage for her during the standing ovation she received.
The concert concluded with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Known for his late Romantic tone poems, Strauss based this on a prankster who takes delight in revealing the eccentricities and shortcomings of the rich and powerful, a popular character in children’s stories at the time. The tone poem chronicles his misadventures, from riding a horse through market and chasing girls, to mocking serious academics and ultimately being captured by authorities and sentenced to death for blasphemy. Even after his execution, the tone poem ends with the opening themes, suggesting his spirit will live on, ending with one last quotation of Till’s quirky theme.
Gaffigan seemed most at ease with this piece, almost dancing through the more energetic parts. The piece opened with a sweet melody in the violins. This was followed by the famous horn solo, representing Till’s pranks, and was executed wonderfully. The violas really shined when given the melodic material, and the E-flat clarinet was consistently precise with every entrance of Till’s playful theme. When necessary, the brass was absolutely heroic. The opening theme that came back at the end of the piece was touching, and the final and brief return to Till’s mischievous second theme was powerfully punctuated. This made for a glorious end to the evening.
This ASO program repeats Saturday (January 25). The Peachtree String Quartet’s next performance is March 15 at the Garden Hills Recreation Center in Buckhead.