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Guest conductor James Gaffigan had the ASO musicians on the edge of their seats, focused and playing to their vast potential. (Photos by Raftermen)

Review: Conductor James Gaffigan leads ASO on exotically lovely cosmic trip

Lucky Atlanta. We’ve tied the knot with our next music director: the love between Nathalie Stutzmann and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra becomes an official partnership starting in the fall. But we still have on the calendar several speed-dating encounters with ambitious conductors who were potential music director candidates, operating at a very high level.

For these conductors, as well as the orchestral musicians, the pressure of wooing and assessing each other — for a creative partnership, for a job audition — is off. Now it’s just about making great music. Fun times ahead.

Thursday evening in Symphony Hall, James Gaffigan returned to the ASO podium in a delightful and substantive program filled with exotic images and picture-postcard landscapes, both cartoonish and cosmic. (With today’s attitudes, we might also suggest it’s a program tied to an era of colonialism and fraught geopolitics.)

Gaffigan, a mid-career American with a European base, appears to have the complex skill set needed to be music director of a major American orchestra. Exuberant, maybe a little showy on the podium, he kept the ASO musicians on the edge of their seats, focused and engaged and playing to their vast potential. When the right orchestra comes along, he’ll be a catch.

They opened with a suite of dances from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes. Each act of the opera depicts a rather traditional love story — a soprano and tenor are prevented from making love by a baritone, for example — in a spicy, far-away locale.

The most catchy number, “Air des Sauvages,” was reworked from a harpsichord piece Rameau wrote after seeing a group of Native Americans from the Mitchigamea tribe. They’d been shipped from Louisiana to Paris to dance and entertain the aristocrats. It’s not clear if the memorable tune and jumpy rhythm reflects music brought from the Louisiana territory, or if it was Rameau’s creative response to seeing other-worldly dancing by people the press called “savages.” Obviously, Rameau loved them.

James Gaffigan
It was tight quarters on stage during the performance of “Azul,” and it appeared guest soloist Alisa Weilerstein accidentally readjusted the microphone for her cello.

In this arrangement, the ASO played “Les Sauvages” twice, to open and close. The first time through was lean and quick. Then came the buoyant Ouverture, the stately Entrance of Four Nations (France and its allies Spain, Italy and Poland) and two zesty dance tunes: menuets and tambourins. When “Les Sauvages” returned it was made loud and martial with added percussion, including cymbals and a tambourin, a kind of Provençal folk drum. The playing was free-spirited and fun, aided by Gaffigan’s minimal conducting, at times dropping his arms to his side and swaying his hips to the beat.

The evening’s big event was Osvaldo Golijov’s “Azul,” an earthy and cosmic cello concerto with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. More than a decade ago, she played a big role in helping the composer tweak and improve the piece, although when it first came to Atlanta, in 2009, it was with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. I obsessed over “Azul” back then, and the chance to revisit this masterpiece was irresistible.

The stage setup couldn’t be more complicated. The full orchestra and soloist were joined by a sort of “continuo trio” up front, in the style of a baroque concerto grosso, making “Azul,” like the composer himself, rooted in old traditions while imagining the future.

Longtime Golijov collaborators Michael Ward Bergeman played a plugged-in, souped-up hyper-accordion (augmented by electronic enhancements), with percussionists Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad on an array of exotic — there’s that word again — instruments from around the globe.

But when a very pregnant Weilerstein walked on stage, she took a long moment to get herself situated on the soloist’s platform. In the process she seemed to accidentally move some wires and possibly readjusted her cello’s microphone. Even the quiet parts “Azul” can be loud, and amplifying the cello is essential for balance. Alas, I could barely hear Weilerstein’s part, making the opening movement all background and no foreground. This will hopefully be fixed for Saturday’s show.

Still, Golijov’s endearing voice came through. Like Ravel (heard later on the program), Golijov has a super-sophisticated technique as a composer, but often writes music of disarming innocence and simplicity. In the contemplative second movement, “Silencio,” for example, we hear chirping birds up close and broad flapping wings in the distance, and traipse through the jungle — a playful scene but somehow touching and eternal in its respect for awesome nature. It can be wonderfully literal, all against a plaintive cello line, gathering her thoughts. The scene is moving on a lot of levels, tugging at our emotions. This is what Golijov does best.

As an encore, Weilerstein and the trio improvised on a Villa-Lobos tune, “The Little Train of Caipria,” with the cellist playing gorgeous long lines and the percussionists jamming with unrestrained exuberance. Wow. I could have listened to more of that, like, forever.

James Gaffigan
Gaffigan led the orchestra through one of its strongest, and most convincing, performances of a work by composer John Adams.

After intermission, in standard repertoire, Gaffigan really showed his stuff. The music of John Adams, among the most prominent of all living composers, has been central to the ASO repertoire for many years. Former music directors Robert Shaw and Robert Spano (and Adams himself) conducted many of the composer’s most important works. The musicians know the language, they know how it breathes.

So it was a pleasant surprise that Gaffigan’s reading of “The Chairman Dances” — music associated with the opera Nixon in China — was among the strongest, most convincing performances of Adams I’ve heard from this orchestra. The off-balance rhythms, the endless pulse, the vintage foxtrot dance bits, the giddy joy and occasional weirdness — Gaffigan kept it raucous with a swingin’ beat, as if it were a lucid dream.

In Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose, with each section depicting a beloved nursery rhyme, Gaffigan had an ideal grasp of the orchestral textures and the score’s expertly crafted simplicity, the French composer’s vision of the innocence and profundities of childhood.

Gaffigan judged perfectly the ethereal mood and muted colors of Sleeping Beauty and the lazy waltz of Beauty and the Beast, and he caught the sad whimsy of the lost Tom Thumb, dropping bread crumbs in the forest that are immediately gobbled up by birds. Delightfully, you hear it all in the music.

The casual, pre-World War I European attitude about empire — with a corresponding fascination and mockery of exotic cultures — was most apparent in the section depicting cute little Chinese pagodas and cute little “pagodines,” the tiny magical animals that play music on nutshells. Its distinctive sound comes from the pentatonic scale (comparable to using only the black keys on a piano) and the powerful influence Ravel felt after hearing Indonesian gamelan at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Here we admire Ravel’s charm and precision of orchestration, and move on without thinking much about the context.

Finally, for the grand climax, after the enchanted formality of the Fairy Garden, Gaffigan held back the crescendo a bit, allowing the opulence to bloom late and organically, all the more satisfying. It was a beautifully realized moment, a summary of what a skilled maestro and willing orchestra can achieve.

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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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