The waning weeks of Robert Spano’s tenure as Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director found him returning to the podium after a flurry of guest conductors. His 20-year ASO legacy secured, Spano prepares to leave for his new position as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with little left to prove. It was surprising, then, that he took an unexpected opportunity to loosen up a bit at Thursday night’s virtual concert — a program that included the modern music of Michael Abels, Clarice Assad and Benjamin Britten along with a Beethoven concerto featuring guest pianist Yefim Bronfman.
The opening performance of Abels’ Delights and Dances was filmed at rehearsal, with the musicians clad in street clothes, and Spano himself sporting a short-sleeved button down top. As if compelled by the shirt’s laid-back implications, Spano seemed to be in a playful mood and conducted the orchestra with a jocular abandon not seen in his usually understated performances.
That laid-back style wonderfully suited Delights and Dances, which opened with a resonant, sonorous cello introduction before segueing into a fascinating dialogue between the string players. The notion of the piece being a dialogue is inherent to the work, which is meant to sound like an interaction between two musicians, one White and one Black. A celebration of racial and stylistic integration, the piece has plenty of Americana on display with nods to jazz and bluegrass, and also a larger element of world music.
Compositionally, Delights and Dances employs a strong pentatonic phrasing that seemed to run a wide slalom between the slow tonal bends of Southern blues and the pomp and circumstance of Eastern pastiche. There was a bouncy, almost deliriously disjointed quality to the music and the relaxed attire of the ensemble seemed exactly right to convey this jubilant, cheerful arrangement.
While Delights and Dances would have more than satisfied the ASO’s recent push toward the avant-garde, a still more captivating piece came in the world premiere of Assad’s The Book of Spells. The piece was commissioned and performed by the Merian Ensemble, an all-female subgroup of the ASO dedicated to playing works written by women. The group commissions one new work each year.
The Book of Spells was inspired by Assad’s interest in ritual magic and the occult. The three-part work is structured around themes of love and relationships, material wealth and physical health, and the magical rites involved in bringing them into one’s life.
In a pre-performance interview with harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, Assad was cheerful and vivacious. She explained that her interest in magic grew out of family and friends telling her that letting her hair go gray made her look like a witch. The initial good cheer of the piece quickly dissipated in the face of its dark and foreboding journeys down the sparsely lit corridors of the psyche.
The music was propelled forward at all times by Remy Johnson’s haunting pulsations on the harp and an unnerving aura created by everything from pitched glasses to the rattle of marbles rolled around in a glass bowl. The effect resembled the kind of sonic tableau created by such electronic noise artists as Non and Merzbow.
Not content to settle for a captivating tonal atmosphere, Assad introduced a deep, penetrating melodic line that slithered with serpentine magnificence among the lower end of the ensemble, occasionally leaping up into the higher register. The result was a melody that captivated with its angelic grace even as it never fully abandoned its diabolical undertones.
Assad is a composer who knows how to make woodwinds dig deep into their register and come back bearing treasure.
Before the final piece came Britten’s Sinfonietta, a more traditional work that nevertheless maintained the evening’s joyriding energy while clearly serving as a transition to the program’s climactic Beethoven. Sinfonietta eventually departed from its initial intensity, embracing an early-20th-century ballad style that recalled Hollywood film noir. The ASO was in fine, if somewhat sharply subdued form.
The program closed with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and despite a stunning display of effortless virtuosity from guest pianist Bronfman, it seemed almost like an afterthought. The avant-garde and experimental ruled the day, a testament to the ASO’s willingness to push boundaries and deliver the goods in so doing.