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The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ignited a heat wave June 3 as French piano legend Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya for Latin Fiesta, a high-voltage streamed concert inspired by the flavorful rhythms of the Spanish-speaking world. The program featured music that spanned the early 20th century to the newest of new offerings from some of the most outstanding composers today.

Jimmy López has established himself as one of the hottest contemporary musical forces around. The Peruvian-born composer boasts a number of high-profile commissions from several major orchestras, as well as from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where his highly acclaimed Bel Canto premiered in 2015. The concert began with his Fiesta!, a 2007 commission from Harth-Bedoya. This piece (either in its original 14-instrument structure or full orchestration as heard here) is one of the young composer’s most popular efforts, and for good reason — it’s a blast. Inspired by the Peruvian club scene, Fiesta! incorporates elements of techno dance music and Afro-Peruvian elements into an essentially classical structure. The ASO sizzled here. López’s percussion writing is dazzling and was viscerally executed by Atlanta’s musicians (who appeared to be having a swell time, their heads visibly bobbing with their playing).

Elegía Andina by Gabriella Lena Frank followed. Composed in 2000, the work was dedicated to Frank’s brother and their multi-ethnic background (Peruvian-Spanish-Chinese on their mother’s side, Lithuanian Jewish on their father’s). That multiculturalism strongly informs this delightful piece, which draws heavily from Andean nursery songs and Peruvian double-row zampoñas panpipes (here deftly re-created by ASO flutists Christina Smith and Gina Hughes). There is an interesting, dissonant counterplay of agitated strings and percussion that was quite satisfying here, as well as a splash of Eastern influence from clarinet, courtesy of principal Laura Ardan.

Thibaudet then joined the orchestra for the evening’s centerpiece, Tango Manos by the marvelous American composer Aaron Zigman. The paint is barely dry on this one — Thibaudet performed its world premiere in Beijing in 2019 and its American premiere only last season. Based on this performance with the ASO, one hopes he keeps the stunning piano concerto in his repertory for some time to come. Zigman’s music is highly theatrical (not surprising, given his great success in film scoring, including The Notebook). Tango Manos is certainly that and intensely hormonal as well, filled with throbbing rhythms, blazing brass writing and a solo piano line that seems at times almost impossibly virtuosic. 

Thibaudet tore into this music with a primal intensity that was thrilling and didn’t shy away from a dollop of schmaltz when required: Yet he skillfully pulled back to produce a translucent delicacy of sound in the romantic interludes (his communication with concertmaster David Coucheron as the two fined down the final phrases of the first movement was something to see). The final Allegro appassionato was electrifying as all those tango rhythms burst through the full, increasingly layered symphonic forces.

The performance concluded with some much beloved music by that greatest of Spanish composers, Manuel de Falla, with the Suite No. 1 taken from his 1919 ballet El sombrero de tres picos, or The Three-cornered Hat. The suite begins with the ballet’s arresting intro (its requisite claps and shouts  provided by the ASO players) and follows with three of the major dances. Nobody does atmosphere like de Falla, and Atlanta’s forces did him proud. You could practically feel the sunshine.

Harth-Bedoya was a handsome presence in the pit, with a captivating serenity in his flowing physicality, which provided an intriguing contrast to all the gutsy frisson he whipped up onstage. He was masked as appropriate but smiled with his eyes.

The concert was crisply produced and recorded and featured some especially attractive lighting from David Balliet, including a confetti-like shower of kaleidoscopic color to visually underscore the López and a cyclorama of starbursts that glowed through a wash of blue in the Zigman concerto.

The telecast included an affectionate interview with Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra music director Jerry Hou by Sameed Afghani, the ASO’s vice president and general manager. The gentlemen traded impressions of the challenges and notably impressive accomplishments of the ASO’s educational mission during the pandemic, as well as trenchant advice on designer socks. Their insights engendered optimism for music’s future. And yes, the socks were fabulous.

The concert will be available for the next 30 days on the ASO’s “Behind the Curtains” virtual stage.

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