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Nathalie Stutzmann
David Coucheron soloed on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major while guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann led the ASO in Thursday's virtual concert. (Photos courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Review: Nathalie Stutzmann returns to guest conduct the Atlanta Symphony

With the imminent departure of music director Robert Spano, who’s leaving at the end of the season, and a rotating roster of guest conductors who might replace him, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues to showcase contemporary and avant-garde works in its virtual concerts from Symphony Hall. 

For the second consecutive program, a female conductor — in this case, Nathalie Stutzmann, chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway — led the ASO on Thursday evening. The performance was streamed live as part of the ASO’s Behind the Curtain series.

Stutzmann conducted the orchestra in December for a program of Mendelssohn, Wagner and Beethoven. Her quick return indicates that she may be a leading candidate to replace Spano.

Stutzmann led an ambitious program of works by contemporary composer Missy Mazzoli, Mozart and Brahms that largely succeeded despite technical difficulties and a much too safe third act.

Still relegated to the intimate-but-sometimes-alienating realm of the webcast, the evening was dogged throughout by an unfortunately audible ambient hum. The deeply distracting tone permeated the feed. That’s regrettable; in the past the ASO’s digital sound quality has been excellent and broadcast with crystal clarity.

The evening’s first piece, Mazzoli’s “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” was easily the concert’s most captivating moment. Opening with the kind of hovering ambiance associated with the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the composition quickly entered harmonically dense territory with intrepid bravery. Mazzoli is fearless — introducing seemingly incompatible intervals that suddenly erupt with sonorous beauty when met with wider accompaniment.  

The ASO’s virtual concerts feature a scaled-down, masked and socially distanced orchestra in Symphony Hall.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, the evening’s second piece, was easily the most accessible. Most legendary composers produce work that can stagger under the weight of their own brilliance, but Mozart was all too happy to float lighthearted and carefree above the crowd, filling the listener’s soul with warmth and good humor. His reputation as a practical joker is on full display in Violin Concerto No. 3, which is infectiously cheerful in its jaunty, irreverence.

The piece seemed tailor-made for the pure, soaring tones of principal violinist and concertmaster David Coucheron. He played with the warm familiarity of conversing with an old friend. The auditory closeness of the sound added a layer of subtlety to Coucheron’s violin, heightening appreciation for softer moments.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 closed the evening, and it was here that the gears shifted from joyous and transcendental. Brahms’ work was never crafted for easy listening. He typifies the tendency of classical masters to spill their emotional guts into every nook and cranny of a composition. Brahms’ music was infused with his deep, lifelong romantic infatuation with Clara Schumann, the acclaimed concert pianist and composer, as well as the wife and later widow of Robert Shumann. Brahms’ second symphony captures all too well the wild, euphoric highs and the crushing melancholy lows that mark the often crazed state of limerence. 

Here’s where the ASO seemed to falter. The piece felt shoehorned to fit alongside Mozart’s cheerful work. The symphony appeared to be trying to play up the brighter moments while understating the stabs of emotion. That safe, middle-of-the-road approach could be attributed to Stutzmann. Last month, guest conductor Gemma New brought furious passion to the podium, in contrast to Spano’s stoic, even demeanor.

Stutzmann seems to fall somewhere between the two, with a gentle lean toward Spano. Her conducting carries an abiding sense of safety, as if she made a conscious effort to restrain the emotional depth of the music. The result was a technically competent rendition of Brahms that failed to capture the music’s underlying emotional roller-coaster.