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The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra fully embraced its modernist leanings with a special concert Friday night with a slate of pieces written entirely by living composers, the majority of them newly emerging in their careers. The performance was a benefit the Spano Fund for New Music, a newly established fund courtesy of the Antinori Foundation to honor the achievements of outgoing musical director Robert Spano. 

The evening was a remarkably light-hearted affair with Spano joking with the audience and maintaining a relaxed, intimate atmosphere throughout. Someone even shouted “Free Bird!” during the final round of applause. Irrespective of the relaxed atmosphere, the evening had a number of unique pieces on hand.

The opening work, “Onward” by Brian Raphael Nabors, presented a soaring, transcendental melody wonderfully accentuated with pitched percussion. Nabors clearly has a penchant for well-crafted themes and the tasteful nature of his overall arrangements echoes the work of Aaron Copland, the central composer in the ASO’s Thursday and Saturday performances. 

There is a trend in contemporary classical writing to focus less on melody and more on tonal texture. This attention to textural exploration is apparent in Nabors’ writing — the moments of exaggerated breathiness in the woodwinds or sharp scrapes in the percussion. But where less capable composers find themselves fixating on those novelties, Nabors is happy to use them as the underscoring of a strong melodic foundation. The result is a work that is enhanced rather than diminished by its experimental aspects. “Onward” indeed for Nabors. May he continue to reach the new and exciting heights promised by this work.

Less appealing was the world premiere of “Sub Rosa,” a work by Latvian-born composer Krists Auznieks. It is a supremely unfocused piece, one that seems unable to commit to any specific idea and instead floats about in a disjointed haze. The melody functions less as an evolving theme and more like a series of jagged stops and starts. The result is a piece that feels like a series of discarded ideas all written on the same page, all of them held loosely together by a harp plucking seemingly random notes. Avant-garde modernism can be difficult to evaluate in terms of objective merit. A good indication that a piece has fallen short of the mark is when it doesn’t conclude so much as just stop, as was the case here.

Adam Schoenberg’s “La Luna Azul” saw the evening get back on track. Described by the composer as being about “love, light, curiosity, innocence, and a glimpse into the unknown,” it certainly carries forth a rich, life-affirming aura — one that is filled throughout with a joyous sense of rapture. Though somewhat dense at times in its harmonic structure, the overall piece remained enjoyable and engaging throughout. Of particular note was a rather satisfying “Pomp and Circumstance” horn motif that returned throughout the work.

The evening’s second half commenced with an encore performance of Michael Gandolfi’s newly crafted “Piano Concerto,” which was featured on the program Thursday and Saturday. Gandolfi is a modern composer who truly synthesizes the full breadth and width of American popular song forms and knows how to incorporate a style without abandoning his own originality.

The final work of the evening came courtesy of the ASO’s own Michael Kurth, a figure celebrated as much for his compositional prowess as his skill on the upright bass. Kurth’s “Everything Lasts Forever” begins with a remarkably captivating rhythmic motif, one that engages while managing to defy easy categorization. This foundation allows Kurth to sculpt a highly groove oriented melody that feels at home in a contemporary ballet, almost like modern reimagining of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt. 

The ASO debuted “Everything Lasts Forever” in 2013, then recorded and released it in 2019. The piece was inspired by graffiti and street art that Kurth encountered on his way to work in the Krog Street tunnel.

The evening was largely a success and one that demonstrates the ASO can carry an entire concert on the weight of new and often unfamiliar works. It served as a fitting tribute to Spano’s tenure as music director, as well as his focus on discovering and nurturing modern composers.

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