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Last night’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert featured music that referenced each composer’s earlier works. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 (1785) recalls his third horn concerto (or vice versa; they were composed around the same time) and the finale of his opera The Marriage of Figaro. Richard Strauss’s iconic tone poem Ein Heldenleben (1898) — or “A Hero’s Life” — is an autobiographical survey of his life and works, and is chock-full of allusions to his earlier tone poems. The concert repeats this Saturday, October 19

The evening’s guest conductor, Edo de Waart, has been director of multiple orchestras, both domestic and international: for instance, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (2009–17) and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (2015–present). The maestro has had a storied career, appearing early on as assistant to Leonard Bernstein in 1965 and 1966. He is known for his advocacy of contemporary composers such as John Adams and Steve Reich and for a wide-ranging discography including symphonies and operas.

As the ASO searches for its next music director — after two decades on the podium, Robert Spano will step down in 2021 — we have to wonder which of these guest conductors are suitable for the job. At 78, de Waart is likely at his conducting peak, although one has to wonder if he is capable of the other demanding aspects of the job.

The evening’s soloist on piano, Ronald Brautigam, a former student of the well-known pianist Rudolf Serkin, is celebrated for his recordings of the complete works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven on the fortepiano, an early precursor to the modern grand piano. In surveying Brautigam’s online performances, his offbeat yet masterful performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata on a period instrument stands out. 

Pianist Ronald Brautigam performs Mozart

Guest pianist Ronald Brautigam played well but did not seem at home in Symphony Hall.

The concert’s opening work, the Piano Concerto No. 22, is probably not the most famous of the set, although it is the first to include clarinets. As well, its tragic and pensive slow second movement is a showstopper that prompted a second hearing at the premiere. In the first movement, with its alternation between march-like fanfares and subtle lyricism, both soloist and conductor were on track for a very pretty but safe and tame rendition — like sonic wallpaper.

In the remaining movements of the concerto, Brautigam’s performance gained somewhat in fire (especially at the very end) but still was short on power and variety. De Waart provided crisp beats but did not interact strongly with the orchestra, nor suggest an expressive mood; some cadential arrivals were attacked halfheartedly. 

Brautigam did not seem at home in Symphony Hall. His playing, although sparkling and lucid, tended toward a mezzo-forte dynamic and, while frequently subtle, avoided strong contrasts, surprises or anything remotely dangerous. This trap is difficult to escape in Mozart: his innovations can sound trite and gentle to us in light of the greater disturbances in Beethoven and later composers.

What is needed today in performing Mozart is a vigorous and imaginative approach, whether adding ornaments, improvised cadenzas, more flexible rubato, a change in instrumentation or having the soloist conduct the orchestra as Mozart did. Why didn’t Brautigam perform on fortepiano, a less powerful instrument than the modern piano but with a clearer, lighter sound that audiences are less familiar with? A fortepiano could still be heard in Symphony Hall, especially if it is subtly amplified. (A great example of the degree of innovation required can be found in this performance by the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.) 

In the concert’s second half, Strauss’ tone poem dwells on Nietzschean themes of heroism and love. Although the work has struck some as self-congratulatory, it is brilliantly orchestrated and is loads of fun for its sheer sonic and visual spectacle.   

De Waart showed greater engagement in the Strauss, with powerful, legato gestures and much better eye contact with the orchestra; he insisted on a focused, intense vibrato from the strings. With the right sound world in place, he focused on larger dynamic shapes and took a subtle approach to smaller details, frequently dialing the intensity down in relaxed and introspective moments. 

In the work’s six through-composed movements, the first, “The Hero,” was intense with a quick, unsentimental tempo. In “The Hero’s Adversaries,” which paints unflattering portraits of Viennese music critics such as Doktor Dehring, the piercing woodwind calls were ominous and psychotic. The third movement, “The Hero’s Companion,” portrays the changing moods of Strauss’ wife, the Wagnerian soprano Pauline de Ahna. Concertmaster David Coucheron gave a powerful, virtuosic account of the long violin solo, playfully darting from one event to the next and pushing and pulling the tempo, instead of remaining overly rigid. 

In “The Hero at Battle,” the military, percussive gestures were crisp and well-defined, and the contrasts were so great as to be almost grotesque. This is one of the best sections of the work. Its vastly different melodic ideas that unfold at the same time prove that listening to this work on a phone or tablet is no substitute for the grandeur of a live orchestra.

The fifth movement, “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” in which Strauss alludes to his previous symphonic poems and other works, featured wonderful solos on cello (Rainer Eudeikis), oboe (Elizabeth Koch Tiscione) and nicely audible harp arpeggios (including Elisabeth Remy Johnson). In “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion,” a woodland peace reigns amid undercurrents of war and sniping critics. Here, ethereal solos by violin and horn were highlights. Overall, the entire orchestra is to be commended for its high level of playing in this work. 

It was certainly a night of contrasts, with the Mozart receiving tepid ovations, the Strauss enthusiastic ones. Nonetheless, it would be fascinating to see de Waart and Brautigam return to Atlanta, but with the former conducting 19th- or 20th-century music and the latter performing on fortepiano.

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